While the Seattle Police Department has kept track of biased crime cases for decades — it has to be reported to the feds — a unit dedicated to investigating the reports is only a few years old. It sits underneath the homicide and assault units. The person in charge? Detective Beth Wareing.
She’s technically a coordinator but she reads all the cases, knows where they are and answers questions. The hallmark of bias crime, Wareing said, is random selection — a stranger suddenly choosing to do something hateful to a person with little or no warning. “It’s one of the things that makes them a little difficult to solve,” she said. The department says only 39% of reported bias crimes in 2017 have resulted in charges.
The number of reports, so far, never goes down. “It’s a challenge to say what is completely responsible for increases,” Wareing says. “It is possible it’s in an increase in bias crimes, people are reporting more, officers are doing better at identifying characteristics in a case, or demographic trends have been increasing interactions between people.”
The reality is, however, it’s rarely one factor. And things like politics and media coverage matter.
“One of the things I’m seeing in Seattle is people in Seattle are aware,” Wareing said. “They tend to be pretty active, they read the news. We get a lot of concerned citizens calling in.”
This month, Wareing received a report about graffiti on two sandwich boards. That’s not something she would’ve heard about last year. Wareing additionally said more people call in on behalf of someone else.
“There’s increased concern from the community as a whole”
“There’s increased concern from the community as a whole,” she said.
Bias crime reporting continues to increase. This year, as the SPD’s first half of 2017 account of bias crime reports, the number stood at 178 — up from 128 in the same period a year before.
Wareing said the reported crimes typically look like harassment, assault, property damage and threats. Others are simply about hate. But one thing she wanted to make clear: a bias crime is still a crime.
“That’s one of the misunderstandings about the crimes: It criminalizes thought or criminalizes free speech,” she said. “Malicious harassment laws punish victim selection. Like if you commit a crime and the reason why you’ve selected the victim is because they’re a member of one of these categories, it’s an additional crime in the state of Washington.”
Washington law takes any crime, like a misdemeanor assault, and makes it a felony if bias is involved. Then, if the assault caused serious bodily injury or involved unwanted physical contact, it’s also malicious harassment.
Seattle adds some additional specifics through its ordinances. The city specifically protects political ideologies, homelessness, marital and parental status, and age for bias crimes. Of these, Wareing says she’s only seen homelessness and political ideology crimes.
“But those have been on the books since 1984, legislated at a time where I think the social norms were a little bit different,” she said.
Recently, there has been an increase in doxxing, the internet-based dissemination of personal information and/or incessant negative contact by social media or email. Seattle has seen first hand the rise of such tactics. But these things, Wareing explained, don’t automatically necessitate a bias crime — even if derogatory names are used.
“There has to be a threat of violence or property damage,” Wareing said. “It has to be specific, has to be directed at a specific person, and they have to have real fear it will occur. If it meets all that criteria, yes we’ll consider it a bias crime.”
When Wareing first took on the bias crimes unit she noticed a problem. There were holes in SPD’s data.
“We have women going to the grocery store wearing hijabs being screamed at, assaulted, threatened with their children in tow, and I have no police reports to document that”
“We have women going to the grocery store wearing hijabs being screamed at, assaulted, threatened with their children in tow, and I have no police reports to document that,” she said.
Wareing discovered reporting barriers. For some, this means they speak a language besides English, for others it means fear of police. Some don’t understand what emergency services are available because they are new to the country. And, of course, there are people who had negative interactions with the police that prevents them from calling 9-1-1. For the homeless, it’s even more complicated.
“When they report, they can’t assume they’ll be safe from the person who targeted them,” Wareing said. “And where are they going to get a report or notice for court?”
Her outreach, however, exposes her to an incredible array of different populations across Seattle. She said it has opened up her mind and expanded her life.
But the crimes themselves aren’t new to Wareing. She was an officer for 20 years where she typically handled crimes against people rather than property.
“It’s pretty universal as far as people being victimized,” she said. “I think one of the things that really speaks to me is helping to shepherd people through that difficult process. Being a crime victim isn’t easy.”
Wareing went back to college and got a master’s in counseling psychology. She then worked with crisis center victims on weekends before becoming a hostage negotiator. It’s an additional duty she takes on even today. She wants to understand trauma memory, people’s experiences, and what they need.
“One of the things about bias crimes is that they really affect people on a deep and profound level,” Wareing said. “People really tend to stay in this place of anger, fear, humiliation, and shame. Bias crimes really strike a chord deep within people. Being a victim of one of these crimes completely adjusts how a person feels about society, living in a place.”
She recalled one incident in Seattle from last year. A man travelled to the city every day using public transit — which he loved doing. He also loved being downtown. One day, he heard someone shouting at him from behind. As he peaked over his shoulder, he saw someone running full force at him. It ended with him getting punched in the face.
The man no longer wanted to live downtown or use the bus. He simply wanted to stay safe.
“I think it’s a life-altering experience for people”
“I think it’s a life-altering experience for people,” Wareing said, “and I really apply what victims tell me about how this affects them to the way I handle these cases.”
It’s these moments that drive her work.
“It’s not just them, it’s everyone who might identify with them and that’s the intent behind these crimes,” Wareing said. “When you resolve these crimes and send a clear message, I think you can send a message to people who would also commit these crimes that this won’t be tolerated here.”
Wareing is a second generation police officer. She followed the footsteps of her father, Dave. “He was very passionate about his job,” she said. “It was something that really defined his life.”
Her father was the son of a civics teacher and Wareing feels that’s the foundation of both their police work.
“The thing he said to me since I was little was that ‘police work is all about doing the right things for the right reasons,’” Wareing said. “I think when you’re a little one seeing your dad suit up in a super hero uniform every day… it’s seeded in your psyche and in your soul.”
If there’s one thing she could encourage others to do, however, it’s for Seattleites to call 9-1-1.
“One of the funny things about people here in Seattle is they think their emergency is not an emergency,” she said. Seattleites tend to report incidents online when they get home, or they’ll call the nonemergency line later and get put on hold for quite some time. Some even call Wareing herself.
“The majority of the arrests we make happen because patrol is there and can still find the suspect in the area,” Wareing said of emergency calls. “Then we have witnesses, evidence, cameras.”
While the formation of SPD’s bias crimes unit was a big step forward for the city to more fully protect its citizens, there is more work to be done. It’s not her place nor her role to ask for funding, but she said it’s needed. The bias crimes unit needs to expand with the city’s population.
“It’s sort of like a sweater with a lot of strings and I just keep pulling at the strings,” Wareing said.