May 17, 2006
Ever since a January incident in which three white students hung a black doll by a noose in their classroom at the BOCES Harry B. Ward Technical Center, Riverhead Town has taken a pro-active approach to dealing with racism.
The Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force held a meeting soon after the incident, during which elected and school officials outlined a plan focusing on education to prevent such a hate-based happening in the future.
To that end, Riverhead resident Detective Sergeant Robert Reecks of the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Bureau was present at last Thursday's work session to give a presentation to the town board on hate crimes.
Hate crimes are a growing threat, said Reecks. Every day, eight African-Americans, three Jewish, and one Latino in Suffolk County become victims of hate crimes.
Suffolk County, which has 7.9% of the population of New York State, represents 19.6% of the hate crimes reported statewide. That number, said Reecks, indicates that crimes are being reported in Suffolk County, while they might not be elsewhere in the state.
And after an incident last week involving an East Hampton teen who threatened three Latinos with a machete, the issue of hate crimes is once again a hot topic on the East End, the subject of intense media scrutiny.
"A sign of the times," said Reecks, is the fact that the Suffolk County hate crimes unit now has seven full-time detectives assigned to stamping out racism.
The symbols of hatred are everywhere. Reecks showed looming images of burning crosses, not in the Deep South during the days of civil rights unrest, but in Suffolk County three years ago. Tattoos and graffiti bearing gang symbols and numbers are prevalent, as is evidence of KKK activity.
The problem, said Reecks, is that many do not understand the difference between a hate crime and a hate incident. An incident is only elevated to a hate crime if an individual commits a violent act or there is a personal threat issued to an individual based on race, color, nationality, origin, ancestry, age, disability or sexual orientation.
The cross burning, for example, was not considered a hate crime because no one was hurt or threatened and it took place on private property.
Signs distributed in Huntington printed with the words, "Spics Go Home" were also not considered a hate crime, because no threat was involved. At best, said Reecks, individuals could be charged with littering.
However, a home in flames in Farmingville after kids bombed it because immigrants were living there is another story. "The kids didn't get it," said Reecks. "They said, 'If these people weren't there, we wouldn't have had to do it,'" a statement, he said, one kid said he'd heard from his mother. "You can't burn people out of their houses. There was a two month-old [baby] inside that house."
Perpetrators of hate crimes can be charged with more severity, including misdemeanors upped to felonies and higher degrees of felonies.
After the recent BOCES incident, "Riverhead was painted as a racist community," said Reecks, largely due to the front page news factor and the heat of media scrutiny.
In fact, said Reecks, the Riverhead Town Police Department "did everything they could with what they had. A black doll in a noose is not a hate crime."
At best, said Reecks, the Riverhead incident was harassment. The RTPD, he said, "did more than we would have done. But they got beaten up unfairly in the press."
The fact is, there is no legislation in place to deal with hate-based incidents such as cross burnings. "The police department cannot do anything more than what's on the books," he said. "We need to tighten up hate laws."
The Internet, he said, is a hotbed of racism and hatred. "Myspace.com is our worst enemy right now," said Reecks. "It's killing us."
Name calling is a big problem, because it can escalate, said Reecks. Racist jokes might sound funny around the water cooler, but can be dead serious. "Perception is everything," he said.
Reecks also displayed common symbols, numbers, and graffiti favored by "skinheads" and gangs and instructed if evidence of a hate crime is found, dial 911 without delay. Also imperative is leaving the crime scene intact so police can take photos of swastikas or other symbols of hatred.
No one, said Reecks, should ignore the problem, which he believes will "bubble over" and worsen in warmer months. "It's coming," he said. "East Hampton is the perfect example." In fact, said Reecks, the FBI are expected in East Hampton this week to investigate further.
Reecks ended his presentation with a famed quote from Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
Riverhead Town Supervisor Phil Cardinale thanked Reecks, Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hagermiler, and Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force President Louise Wilkinson, who were present, for their efforts.
As this publication went to press, another meeting of the Anti-Bias Task Force was scheduled for Monday night, with an agenda including an update of the BOCES incident, as well as a presentation by Nancy Lynott, director of the Southampton Town Youth Bureau, about available programs.