U. reports 10 hate crimes during 2009
Just weeks after the Rutgers University Police Department received a grant from the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office to combat hate crimes, an alleged act of bullying linked to a student's suicide took place on campus.
And while some have called the events leading to University first-year student Tyler Clementi's suicide a bias crime — his roommate Dharun Ravi allegedly filmed Clementi's encounters with another male without their knowledge — statistics suggest that such crimes are isolated incidents on campus.
According to the 2009 RUPD "Safety Matters" report, a total of 10 hate crimes took place on campus last year, including claims of simple assault, intimidation and damage to property. All were related to race, religion or ethnicity.
A hate crime is "a criminal offense committed against a person or property, which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity/national origin," according to federal law.
Middlesex County Public Information Officer Jim O'Neill said overall, bias crimes are not a major problem for the county.
"I can't even recall any bias charges being filed this year," O'Neill said.
But First Amendment Litigator and Privacy Advocate Grayson Barber said regardless of safeguards against hate crimes, the state of the law makes discrimination legal, a fact she said is appalling.
"In the United States of America at this time, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against homosexuals," she said. "Since it's legal to discriminate against gay people, it's extremely unlikely that the crime against Tyler would be considered a bias crime."
Regardless of their legality, when bias crimes are reported to the police, the department takes them seriously, RUPD Capt. Kenneth Cop said via e-mail.
RUPD protocol in response to a bias crime includes apprehending the actor if appropriate, approaching the victim in a sensitive and supportive manner and providing medical assistance if necessary, Cop said.
Police will protect the crime scene, collect evidence and individually interview witnesses, victims and defendants, he said. Officers may also request a detective response.
Still, police cannot help if the victims do not come forward to report offenses against them.
"It would seem that sometimes people can become a victim of a bias crime and not realize that they should be calling the police, or in some situations, people will think that it was a bias crime when it might not be," O'Neill said.
Robert O'Brien, University anthropology professor and co-founder of Queering the Air, a social justice organization, said even when students realize they are victims of a bias crime, relying on the police may not yield punishment for an offender, as such claims are often not taken seriously.
"My understanding of the harassment … at Rutgers is that if you haven't been shot or stabbed, you haven't officially been harassed," O'Brien said. "They're underreporting."
Yet Cop said physical harm to a victim is not a requirement for an incident to be labeled a bias crime.
"Victims of a bias crime are encouraged to report the incident to the Rutgers University Police Department, who will respond and conduct a thorough investigation," Cop said.
Penalties for a conviction of a hate crime in New Jersey are elevated by one category higher than the specified offense the defendant committed, Cop said.
Penalties for hate crimes are serious and range from fines to imprisonment depending on the nature of the underlying offense, the use of violence and any previous convictions of the offender, he said.
In addition to any criminal penalties, members of the University community found responsible for a hate crime are subject to disciplinary action, which may include separation from the University, Cop said.
But by implementing new programs with the grant from the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office, RUPD can target preventing bias crime on campus in the first place.
The $5,000 grant, which was also awarded to 21 municipal departments throughout the county, is to be used for bias crime prevention and education, Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan said.
Funding for bias crimes prevention will be made available through money authorities seize from criminal defendants who had obtained proceeds through illegal activities such as selling drugs, Kaplan said.
"One of the goals of the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office has always been to ensure the quality of life for all citizens of Middlesex County," he said. "These funds will continue that goal, by helping to promote a strong bond between the police and the community."
When members of the Old Bridge community expressed concern about bias crime after the homicide of an Indian man, the prosecutor's office looked deeper into complaints of violations in the area, exactly the type the office seeks to prevent across the county.
At the University, the RUPD Community Policing unit is using the funds to develop an up-to-date bias prevention and diversity awareness training program that will be incorporated into presentations for the University community, Cop said.
The Community Policing unit also conducted security surveys of several Jewish centers on the College Avenue campus and scheduled special patrols in the College Avenue area to monitor these locations, which have been the target of vandalism and theft in the past, Cop said.
But Cop said he has no plans regarding changing the focus of the grant in reaction to the recent events on campus, as the grant proposal was submitted in early September.
Students can reduce their chances of falling victim to bias crimes by taking reasonable precautions like staying alert and aware of surrounding people and circumstances, limiting consumption of alcoholic beverages and controlling access to their residences, he said.