Hate crimes on the rise as El Paso pursues police reform

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People gather at a makeshift memorial honoring victims outside Walmart August 15, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. 22 people were killed in the Walmart during a mass shooting on August 3rd. A 21-year-old white male suspect remains in custody in El Paso which sits along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) —  Racial tension across the United States reached a boiling point in 2020 following centuries-long history of systemic injustices that disproportionately target and affect communities of color. 

El Paso is no exception, and city leaders are using data-driven policies to evaluate and reform hate crimes and racialized policing.

The FBI’s annual Hate Crimes Statistics Act reports 2019 saw a 113-percent increase in hate crime murders, 23 of which happened in El Paso during the Aug. 3 mass shooting at the Cielo Vista Walmart in August 2019. Those murders account for almost half of all hate crime-related murders across the United State last year. 

Anti-Hispanic hate crimes rose by 9 percent in 2019, marking an increase for the fourth year in a row. 

“The FBI documented that 51 hate crime murders in 2019 included the 23 people that were tragically killed due to the events of August 3rd,” Special Agent Jeanette Harper with the FBI’s El Paso Division, told KTSM 9 News. 

“The results show how important it is for families, friends, members of the community to be aware of changes in behaviors in individuals and to not be afraid to report those observable behaviors that are indicative of someone planning to carry out an act of violence,” she continued. 

“The results show how important it is for families, friends, members of the community to be aware of changes in behaviors in individuals and to not be afraid to report those observable behaviors that are indicative of someone planning to carry out an act of violence.”

Special Agent Jeanette Harper with the FBI’s El Paso Division

Race-based hate crimes remain the most common type of hate crime in the United States, and have been the last 30 years that the FBI has been documenting hate crime data. 

Incidents of hate crimes are on the rise despite declining numbers in law enforcement agencies providing data to the federal government for analysis.

“The 2019 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso gives Texas a very unwelcome distinction in the FBI’s hate crime statistics,” says Mark B. Toubin, Anti-Defamation League Southwest Regional Director. “Texas in 2019 was home to what has been called the deadliest attack on the Latino community in modern American history.” 

Congress and law enforcement agencies across the country are being called on to improve hate crime reporting after data revealed 2019 was the deadliest year on record for hate crimes.

The Anti-Defamation League is calling for more thorough reporting, and El Paso is emblematic of the need for improvement.

“It’s important that people look at this report to understand that it affects people of all religions and races,” Toubin said. “And El Paso has seen the worst of it. Our hope is that with better laws, law enforcement will have more tools to intercede early and avoid a repeat of a tragedy of any kind — but especially of the magnitude that El Paso has seen.” 

While advocates and federal agencies continue to reckon with centuries-old conflicts stemming from racism, the city of El Paso is looking inward to see how it can address and eliminate racial disparities. 

Less than a year after the Walmart shooting, the community was confronted by nationwide conflict following the officer-involved killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor among others. 

In June, the city of El Paso adopted a resolution designed to alleviate racial disparities in arrests and includes team members across five city departments. The resolution targets six areas of focus that Assistant City Manager Dionne Mack said will lead to greater understanding and transparency. 

Mack said the team started by asking how the community could look to evaluate, research and gain a better understanding of police policies and procedures.

According to a new study in Contexts, a magazine from the American Sociological Association, nearly one in five police officers exhibit elevated implicit pro-white bias, while one in eight exhibit explicit pro-white bias.

The study’s authors say the results dispel the excuse of “a few bad apples” who participate in racialized policing and serve as a framework for Mack and her team to address racial biases in El Paso, amounting to police reform.

“I think one of the things that you’ve probably heard — if you’ve been following the city — we are  very much about process improvement,” Mack said. 

“We have a strategic way of looking at everything that we do through the lens of improvement. So from our position, that really is reform,” she continued. 

Mack is working with the El Paso Police Department and the community to determine necessary needs and changes from each entity. 

“So what I’ve heard from the department is they want to be sure that if they’re being asked to make changes, that it’s from the perspective of who they are, where we know those changes should be happening in the department, and not through the lens of ‘we’re just checking a box because — politically — we have to do something,” she said. 

The team will be outsourcing research data that will then inform best practices specific to El Paso. A third-party expert will analyze data on EPPD’s use of force and deadly force, as well as rates of racial profiling.

“So for the racial profiling,” Mack said, “they’re going to be looking at five years of data: down to every call, every stop, mapping it across what activities have happened across our community to see if there’s any patterns or anything that we need to be addressing.”

Efforts to reform police departments across the country have become erroneously synonymous with efforts to defund or more extreme calls for complete police abolition. 

The budget for the City of El Paso has consistently taken money from the EPPD, meaning the city has already been engaged in defunding efforts that Mack said are not punitive. The race disparities elimination team is working to create a substantive plan with the resources available.

“Defunding doesn’t change the behavior patterns that we see throughout the country — it doesn’t. So if we don’t look at it from a holistic perspective, we will not have a changed environment from where we are right now, anywhere,” she said. “Our strategy is to take that step back and be transparent, and to get people to the point where they understand.”

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