This article was originally published in the October 2013 COPS Community Policing Dispatch e-Newsletter. The original article can be found here.
After 30 years on the job, San Diego County (California) Sheriff's Department (SDSD) Detective Ellen Vest is turning in her badge. Over the years, her accomplishments have been numerous but what she is most proud of is heading up the investigations of hate crimes.
In 2003 when assigned to the detective division in Santee, a city in San Diego County, Detective Vest began to notice unusual group beatings. She witnessed very violent assaults, with slurs shouted at victims who did not know their assailants. She suspected there might be a gang problem and began tracking and documenting the graffiti in the area and noting the tattoos and clothing of those she arrested.
“It took 10 years to recognize that these hate crimes were not just lone-wolf individuals. The East County had a white supremacist street gang problem,” said Vest. “We didn't get the whole picture until 2010. First thoughts were that it was just people being tough. However, when we identified them, the force began to understand these are white gangs. A lot of them fizzle because when they start going to jail they die out.”
Vest began researching and creating intelligence documents on all the gangs in the East County area of San Diego, focusing particularly on skinhead gangs, which were very active. Her research and police work resulted in the documentation and arrest of many of these gang members, and when hate crimes occurred she and her fellow detectives relied on this intelligence to investigate and solve many incidents.
Ellen Vest became the sheriff department's one-woman hate crimes task force. She developed training for her fellow officers and detectives in order to recognize the signs and symbols of hate-based groups, trained officers to document evidence and their suspicions in reports, and worked with prosecutors to identify gang members and investigate hate crimes. “It's important to note a department does not have to have a full task force to do hate crime work well,” said Vest. “Just a few interested and educated detectives are effective.”
During her 30 years of law enforcement, Detective Vest distilled the most important ideas about hate crimes down to five lessons, which she teaches to cadets in a seminar she helped initiate at the Miramar Police Academy in San Diego.
Lesson 1: Hate Crimes Affect Everyone and Victims Need Support
Hate crimes are not just about race or religion. According to Vest, a hate crime is a crime committed by someone who is substantially motivated by his or her bias against the other persons':
- Sexual orientation
- Perceived association with the above
Law enforcement should be on the lookout for these biases when investigating every crime. Vest also noted that victims of hate crimes often need more ongoing support than other victims, but this support can get lost in law enforcement's pursuit of hate crime prosecutions.
Lesson 2: Hate Crimes are Message Crimes
Vest notes that most hate crimes send a message of terror to an entire group and community; the victim is a vessel to send this message. For instance, the burning of a cross on an African-American family's lawn is a message of terror to the family, but it also sends a message to other African-American families that they are not welcome in the neighborhood, and they may be next.
Lesson 3: Be Sure to Report and Document Incidents
Officers need to document every hate and bias incident. Vest noted that a meticulous approach to reporting and documenting incidents helps her department eventually take many of these perpetrators off the streets. She explained that even relatively minor incidents like tire slashings need to be documented: “On the face it may not look like a hate incident, but when other incidents happen, it's important to have all this recorded to build a case. Don't discount small incidents.”
Lesson 4: Identify Symbols of Hate
Vest and her colleagues keep meticulous records on perpetrators. When they encounter members of hate groups, officers photograph tattoos, clothing, boots, hate paraphernalia, and anything that can be evidence of bias and hate against certain groups. When searching cars and homes they always look for signs and symbols of hate group affiliation. Graffiti identification is also an important tool.
When two young women from the Dominican Republic and their friend were attacked in Mast Park in San Diego County, the patrol officers knew that some kind of bias might be involved before they even took a full report from the victims because of the skinhead graffiti that had already been identified in this location. This knowledge and the victim's statement helped the detectives quickly identify and arrest the perpetrators.
Lesson 5: Work with Your Community to Reduce and Prevent Hate Crimes
Hate and bias crimes can tear communities apart. Preventive work to identify possible perpetrators can serve to make the community unfriendly to those who commit these types of crimes. Working closely with communities to build positive relationships will help make it easier for victims to report incidents when they happen. “Building strong and positive ties with communities can help alleviate some of this fear and lead to strong community-police relationships,” said Vest.
Despite her retirement, Detective Vest plans to work with the department's detective bureau part-time and continue teaching at the Police Academy. She is also a valued member of NIOT's Law Enforcement Leaders cadre, and will be profiled in a new film being distributed by the COPS Office early next year.
Call for School Resource Officers
In its ongoing effort to profile law enforcement leaders, NIOT is looking for school resource officers working on anti-bullying initiatives and campaigns to profile in an upcoming film. If you or anyone you know is interested, please email the NIOT engagement team at firstname.lastname@example.org.