By Brian Krans
San Francisco has been a bastion for gay rights and acceptance, famously charioted by Harvey Milk’s election to the city’s board of supervisors. Yet even 37 years after his assassination, 60 percent of all of San Francisco’s hate crimes are against gay men.
Sgt. Peter Shields of the San Francisco Police Department’s Special Investigation Division is tasked with investigating these and other hate crimes. He says the other common ones include violence against transgendered people and graffiti against whites, blacks, Jews, and other groups.
“When it comes to hate crimes, when you get a victim, it’s a completely different level of pain when they’re attacked for being part of a protected class,” Shields said.
Empathy an Important Part of Investigations
Shields says being gay himself helps him understand what gay victims of hate crimes experience.
“It doesn’t make it any harder. There’s empathy for what the victim is going through,” he said.
One of the most important things an investigator can do, he says, is to take the time and follow-up during different stages of the case.
Explaining what post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is, and that it doesn’t just happen to soldiers of war, can also help a victim cope with what they’re going through. Investigators can also direct victims to resources like therapists or support groups.
“Sometimes they want someone to listen to them again,” Shields said.
A City Intolerant of Hate
As the sole investigator entirely dedicated to hate crimes, Shields says taking every case is better because it’s better for keeping track of clues that could lead to an ongoing pattern.
But when a potential hate-motivated crime arises, it has its own host of challenges.
“The hardest part is proving the perpetrator was motivated by hate,” Shields said.
The language an attacker uses is often the biggest tell, but even then it’s not always clear if specific slurs—such as calling someone “faggot”—doesn’t necessarily clearly identify a person’s motivation, Shields said.
Other cases are more clear, such as the case of the 70-year-old white man that was punched in the face after the attacker said, “I hate white people.”
“You don’t have to be in a protected class to be the victim of a hate crime,” Shields said. “It can happen to anybody.”
But many criminals are savvy enough to understand that San Francisco juries are hyper-aware and sympathetic of hate crime victims. California, the state that reports the most hate crimes, has enhanced sentencing guidelines in both jail time and fines.
Relationships Vital to Successful Investigations
Even before a perpetrator sees the inside of a jail cell, Shields relies on several key relationships during his investigation.
He said hate crime investigators should develop a strong relationship with the district attorney’s office. Ideally, he said, this includes a prosecutor dedicated to hate crimes, so one-on-one communication can happen.
“It really helps,” Shields said.
Also, having the support from your bosses by keeping them apprised of what’s happening is another key relationship. This prevents superiors from being blindsided by questions from the media on such a hot topic.
Investigators should also aspire to have a good relationship with the media, especially knowing reporters, editors, and producers they can trust. This helps in making sure incidents and cases are reported accurately and not sensationalized.
Looking at incidents in Ferguson and most recently the racist terrorist attack at a historic black church in South Carolina, Shields says he believes racial tension in America will worsen before they get better.
“It will be years before it settles down,” he said. “It’s just so deep rooted in our society and learned at such a young age.”