ALBANY — Reports of hate crimes have jumped significantly in New York over the past four months, say law enforcement officials and others who monitor bias incidents.
Extremists have increasingly turned to social media as platforms from which they can harass and intimidate others based on their religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds.
The New York State Police said they typically field 10 to 15 reports of bias crime each year. But since November, troopers have already had to respond to 60 such reports, said Beau Duffy, a State Police spokesman.
In recent months, 44 Bureau of Criminal Investigation detectives have received training in responding to hate crimes, with legal experts from the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations participating in the seminars at the State Police Academy.
"One of the impediments we face now is that some of this is internet-based," said Senior Investigator Sean Morgan, a member of the cadre of hate-crime sleuths.
One of the trainers for the ADL, Michael Snow, said in an interview that one objective of the classes is to help police gain an understanding of the impact of hate-fueled crimes on communities and to help officers recognize symbols that may be associated with white supremacists or other hate groups.
"The internet and social media have opened up a whole new dimension when it comes to issues having to do with extremism, anti-Semitism, racism and hate speech," Snow said. "It definitely complicates things when it comes to tracking down who people are, and it allows people to network."
The ADL has also been assisting police in tracking the wave of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers (JCC) — including new ones Tuesday in the Rochester suburb of Brighton and the Syracuse suburb of Dewitt, as well as one to the ADL headquarters in Manhattan.
Those threats prompted Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, to renew his call for the Federal Communications Commission to grant an emergency waiver that would allow police to pinpoint the source of the threatening calls.
These threats come amid an increase of hate being fomented in the shadowy corners of the internet, with some perpetrators, emboldened by their seeming anonymity, making repetitive efforts to intimidate others, police said
Morgan noted that while the target of an act of vandalism may be just one person or one building, others who share that person's background can be left highly traumatized by the tone of the hateful message. He said all reports of hate crimes are treated as high-priority cases.
Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo responded to the uptick in hate crimes by saying the state will pay a $5,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the person or persons behind such acts. State officials are also urging anyone with knowledge of a bias incident to contact police by texting "HATE" to 81336. Officials say more than 3,100 tips have been collected on the tip line since November.
In New York, recent reports of hate crimes include the arrest of a Rockland County corrections officer charged with pointing a handgun at a Muslim cab driver in Kingston and charges brought against a 13-year-old boy in the Schoharie County town of Esperance for spray-painting swastikas on a number of buildings.
Meanwhile, hate groups have stepped up their efforts to recruit college students into their organizations, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
In a report released this week, the ADL expressed concern that white supremacists are now engaging in "unprecedented" outreach efforts to lure supporters from college campuses. The organization noted that 107 incidents of recruiting through leaflet drops and posters have been recorded at schools in 25 states since September.
“While there have been recruitment efforts in the past, never have we seen anti-Semites and white supremacists so focused on outreach to students on campus," Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL's chief executive officer, said in a statement.
The ADL also reported that extremists have stepped up their efforts to speak to students individually on campuses, calling that effort "part of a push to move their activism from online chatter to 'real world' action."
Extremist groups that have been making overtures to college students, the organization said, include a far-right group called Identity Evropa, the white supremacist American Vanguard, and American Renaissance, described by the ADL as a group that is both anti-Semitic and racist.
A civil rights watchdog group, the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala., said in a report last month that 47 hate groups have a presence in New York,
Across the country, the group said, there are 917 such groups, with the biggest growth in recent years coming in groups focusing their hostility on Muslims. Since 2015, the number of anti-Muslim groups has nearly tripled, from 32 in 2015 to 101 last year, the center said.
Such groups were "energized" by President Donald Trump, who used "incendiary rhetoric" in his campaign last year while calling for tighter immigration controls, the Southern Poverty Law Center contended
That view was rejected by state Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long. He pointed out that Trump supporters, for example, had no involvement with the wave of threats against Jewish institutions allegedly carried out by former journalist Juan Thompson, arrested last week on cyberstalking charges.
"Donald Trump and the conservative movement had nothing to do with his wrongful acts," said Long, noting investigators suspect the crimes were motivated to intimate Thompson's former girlfriend.
In Albany, lawmakers are pondering a package of "religious freedom" measures designed to counter hate crimes with tougher sanctions.
One proposal being promoted by the state Senate's Independent Democratic Conference would boost penalties for the desecration of a house of worship or for cemetery vandalism.
The conference is also urging another measure that would elevate what is now a misdemeanor offense of graffiti to a felony if the action is intended to target a person based on race, creed, religious background or sexual orientation.
"As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, to see this occur in America in 2017 is deeply disturbing and we must send a clear message to anyone who believes that they could strike fear into any religious group: hate will not be tolerated in New York state,” said Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, the leader of the conference of breakaway Democrats who are aligned with the Senate GOP.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org