As a wave of antisemitism and hate sweeps across Canada Hamilton police are building a new tool to help respond.
The new Hate Crime Case Review Team will bring community agencies together with police to review cases, provide recommendations on handling hate and advise on training for officers on the front lines.
For newly appointed Police Chief Frank Bergen, the effort is a way of showing the community the police are serious about tackling hate.
“Every time we give a statistic about hate crimes, people say it means nothing and we are being disrespectful to their barriers,” he said in an interview. “The public wants action, and they criticize us when they think we are just saying the words.
“We are going to lean into challenges like this,” he added. “We are asking the community to help use design the program.”
The new team is modelled after the city’s Sexual Assault Community Review Team. It meets to review sexual assault cases deemed unfounded or lacking sufficient evidence to lay charges. It was created following a 2018 report that concluded up to 70 per cent of sexual assault cases deemed unfounded by police should have been pursued.
Six cases were reopened because of that initiative, and one has resulted in charges.
The latest 2020 figures from Statistics Canada show a sharp spike in hate crimes reported to police, with the Jewish community remaining a special target.
The national agency said on July 28 the number of police-reported hate crimes in Canada increased by 37 per cent during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising from 1,951 incidents in 2019 to 2,669 in 2020. Those numbers mark the largest number of police-reported hate crimes since comparable data became available in 2009.
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre Canada calculated a 37 per cent increase in hate crimes reported to police and the total number, 2,669, the highest number ever recorded.
Of the 515 police-reported incidents involving religion, Jews were the targets in 321 cases, 62 per cent of the total. That’s an increase of about 4.7 per cent from 2019.
In a news release following the Statistics Canada announcement, FSWC CEO Michael Levitt called the increase “troubling” and called for more government action to combat the trend.
"These newly released hate crime statistics are extremely troubling but also sadly expected, as many minority communities in Canada reported witnessing a dramatic rise in hate incidents throughout 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic ran rampant, so did hatred,” he said.
“In the Jewish community, we saw a particular increase in antisemitic conspiracy theories about the pandemic, especially on social media platforms,” Levitt added. “There is no room for any form of hatred in this country, and while we are seeing our federal, provincial and municipal governments take steps, more concrete actions must follow to combat hate, whether it's online, in schools or in our neighbourhoods."
In Hamilton, during 2020, police recorded 80 hate/bias incidents. The number includes both suspected hate/bias incidents and criminal offences. Blacks and Jews continue to be the communities most targeted by such incidents.
One such incident involved two Hamilton men who, after a night of drinking, scrawled antisemitic message in chalk on the parking lot of the city’s Beth Jacob Synagogue. That incident was elevated from mischief to a hate crime. The men involved are to be sentenced on Aug. 11.
In another Hamilton-area incident, two Burlington men were convicted in January of willfully promoting hatred for a spree of incidents that included posting antisemitic materials on private cars and public buildings. Each received a six-month conditional sentence order and two years probation.
In a news release, police said the new review team will seek “to work collaboratively to develop comprehensive recommendations to improve outcomes for hate crime victims. Similar to the (sexual assault team), the scope of the review will include an internal and external analysis of hate crime investigations, as well as looking at policies, procedures, and training. Organizational representatives on the Hate Crime Case Review Team would also have a background in anti-racism, anti-oppression practices.”
The new Hamilton program will also seek to enhance support for victims by having the force’s hate crime detective and victim services staff making contact after an incident is reported. Victim services workers will provide emotional support, assist in safety planning, provide community referrals, and guide victims on accessing financial support in some cases.
They can also help victims navigate the reporting process, including use of the city’s new online reporting program.
“Hate crime in Hamilton is not acceptable. Left unchecked, we know hate crime can have a far-reaching impact on communities. We must come together and work collaboratively to eliminate hate in our city,” said Bergen.
Gustavo Rymberg, CEO of the Hamilton Jewish Federation, said while the program “is only an idea at this time,” it’s a good idea with the potential to help once its details are unveiled.
“Whatever we can do to help improve life in our community I will do it, but right now we don’t know lot of detail about this program,” he said. “Despite that, we will participate and whatever they need me to do I will be there.”
Making it easier to report hate crimes, Rymberg said, is a good step, but details are needed about what happens once a report is filed. Real progress, he added, needs action by the federal government and the courts.
“Fixing hate crime takes more than just our local police,” he said.
Hate crimes can be reported online at www.hamiltonpolice.on.ca. Reporting Hate/bias incidents can also be reported on the phone at 905-546-4925 or in person at any Hamilton Police station. Organizations interested in participating can contact community relations coordinator Jas Dhillon at 905-546-4910 or firstname.lastname@example.org.