To help combat the recent surge in hate crimes in his community, Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner is proposing a more uniform way to collect data on hate crimes so police, prosecutors and local officials can better understand the extent of the problem.
Feiner, the target of a recent hate crime himself, is also urging the state Legislature to adopt minimum punishments for hate crimes such as threatening letters, emails and graffiti.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, antisemitic materials and graffiti were found in the Garden of Remembrance in White Plains, near the Westchester County Office Building.
“Our county has experienced numerous antisemitic incidents in recent months. Scarsdale, White Plains, and Pleasantville have experienced antisemitic incidents in the last few weeks alone,” Feiner said. “The problem is escalating. There have been rallies and commentaries expressing disgust at what has been happening but we need to do more than just be outraged.”
Feiner speaks from experience when he proposes his plan.
In 2017, Timothy Goetze, a White Plains resident, was accused of sending hateful emails to Feiner after Feiner questioned the appropriateness of a Confederate memorial in the Mount Hope Cemetery in Hastings.
The Greenburgh Police Department investigated three threatening emails that were sent to Feiner and his family in reference to his comments. The content of the three emails was identical, but under three different subject lines that read “Human Rights Education,” “Letter to the Ugly Dumb Jew,” and “Letter to the Parasite.”
The final sentence of every letter read, “you better run and hide you stupid f–king jew. We are coming for you and your family,” signed by “Anti-Zionist.”
Goetze defended his emails under the First Amendment, but the court ruled against him, stating that the emails more largely based on personal attack rather than political statements.
Following Goetze’s conviction in September, Feiner said, “ I hope that a message is sent to people who commit hate crimes that they can be caught and prosecuted. Hopefully it will discourage people from committing these crimes in the future. There are many incidents of anti Semitism around Westchester and the region. We can’t look the other way. I’m glad there was a conviction.”
However, Feiner notes that Goetze received only 72 hours community service, an order of protection for Feiner and his family, and a one-year conditional discharge.
Prior to the arrest the Greenburgh Police provided Feiner and his family with 24 hours round-the-clock police protection — an expensive police presence that the defendant did not have to reimburse the town for.
“If defendants, once caught, get only a slap on the wrist, there will be no disincentive not to commit the crime,” Feiner said. “I think that there should be tougher penalties to discourage crimes of hate.”
Hate crimes are on the rise statewide. On Thursday, October 10, 2019, two swastikas were found painted on an abandoned building at Nissequogue River State Park in Suffolk County.
In the Division of Criminal Justice Services’ “Hate Crime in New York State 2016 Annual Report,” the most recent one available, the most common bias for crimes against individuals was anti-religion, with 311 hate crimes reported. More than 240 of those accounts were anti-Jewish crimes.
Out of 598 total hate crimes reported in New York state for 2016, only 234 arrests were made.
The Governor’s Office typically releases a statement when a hate crime is reported and the State Police Hate Crimes Task Force is asked to investigate. In just 2019 alone, Gov. Cuomo has asked the task force to investigate 43 such incidents.
“We have had about an 80 percent increase in antisemitic attacks. It is frightening. It is part of this new national anger and anxiety and frustration where we are demonizing difference,” Cuomo said in September. “I believe it’s the tone set by the president, who has unleashed the dogs of hatred.”
Hate crimes have not only risen in New York state, but nationwide as well.
In 2017, 16,149 law enforcement agencies participated in the Hate Crime Statistics Program, where they reported 7,106 single-bias incidents that involved 8,126 offenses, 8,493 victims, and 6,307 known offenders.
Of the 7,106 single-bias incidents reported, 58.1 percent were motivated by a race/ethnicity/ancestry bias, 22.0 percent were prompted by religious bias, 15.9 percent resulted from sexual-orientation bias, 1.7 percent were motivated by gender-identity bias, 1.6 percent were prompted by disability bias, 0.6 percent (46 incidents) were motivated by gender bias.
Both Cuomo and Feiner suggest the rise in hate crimes both nationally and statewide can be attributed to the President Trump’s nationalist rhetoric at rallies and speeches since taking office in 2017.
“Has he been antisemitic? No. But once you demonize differences, once you release the cancer of hate, it is uncontrollable. And you demonize Muslims, and you demonize Mexicans, and you demonize the new immigrants and people who are different,” Cuomo said. “Well, you know what? We are all different. Jewish people are different than Italian Americans are different than Irish Americans are different than African Americans are different and Latino Americans are different. But the key is the word American. That is the common denominator and that is what the president forgets.”
“I think that with Trump as president, people are not as reluctant to express their feelings. It’s almost like they feel it is more mainstream because of the president,” said Feiner. “I feel that we can’t look the other way. In Nazi Germany they thought it could never happen, and it did.”
Feiner suggests a hate crime reporting form that would enable the community to track hate crimes.
He believes this information gathered and shared with each municipality regarding hate crimes in and around their communities should be made public. Feiner further suggests that the forms should collect data such as the location of the crime, the offense, the victim and how the crime is categorized or filed.
He notes that some of these crimes are categorized as criminal mischief, and sometimes no charges are filed at all.
There would be a follow-up process with the victim — whether it is a person, a school, or church — to let them know whether the perpetrator was caught and what the charges were.
“It’s just a matter of time where there could be fighting and violence on one side or the other.” said Feiner. “I feel that we have to put an end to it and let people know that if they are caught [committing] a hate crime, there are going to be ramifications. A couple of hours of probation is not adequate.”