Forum on “Understanding Hate Crimes and Protection of Places of Worship” Held

On 6th April, Hindus of Greater Houston (HGH) hosted a first-of-its-kind Forum on “Understanding Hate Crimes and Protection of Places of Worship” for faith based and community leaders to learn how to prevent and respond to hate crimes against places of worship. Facilitated by the United States Department of Justice Community Relations Services (CRS), it held presentations by representatives from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, Harris County District Attorney’s office, FBI Houston Field Office, Department of Homeland Security and Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

About 40 faith based organizations attended the forum which was held at the Houston Durgabari Society. The event touched on four issues: Hate Crimes Prosecutions Overview, Hate Crimes Statistics and Symbols of Hate, Preventing and Responding to Active Shooter Situations and a Panel Discussion on Protecting Places of Worship by Interfaith leaders.

A brain child of HGH Past President Partha Krishnaswamy, the forum sought to educate custodians, caretakers and members of temples, churches, synagogues, gurudwaras and mosques on tackling the uptick in hate crimes against places of worship.

Almost all the presenters pointed out that expressing hate, name calling and the display of offensive symbols, no matter how vile, are not in-and-of-themselves criminal. The Constitution is bound to protect the rights of even those who indulge in hate speech. It has to rise to the level of a criminal act before law enforcement agencies can take action.

Recent attacks against religious sites include the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh; Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C.; Victoria Islamic Center, Victoria, Texas, the Oak Creek, Wis., Sikh temple; and the Overland Park Jewish Center in Kansas.

Moderator Harpreet Singh Mocha and Kim Milstead, both from the US Department of Justice were instrumental in putting the program together.

Deputy Chief US Attorney Office of Southern District of Texas, Sharad Khandelwal kicked off the program by highlighting the January 28th 2017 attack on the Victoria Islamic Center, a mosque about 80 miles in Victoria, Texas. Residents around the center woke up to a fire that engulfed the entire mosque and raged for hours eventually burning down the mosque to the ground. It was emotionally devastating for its congregation but Khandelwal noted the outpouring of support from the community. A prayer vigil was attended not just by Muslims but by other local communities with churches and synagogues providing their premises for worship until the mosque was rebuilt.

A squad of law enforcement agencies such as the ATF, FBI, Victoria Fire and Police Department used “every single law enforcement method and technology to crack the case.” The perpetrator was charged with a hate crime that got him 24 years of prison time. This was the repeated assurance offered by Khandelwal that in the event of a hate crime, the Department of Justice will not hesitate “to call it a hate crime and make sure justice is served.”

Bureau Chief-Special Crimes Harris County District Attorney’s Office Ruben R. Perez who works for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg also reiterated that their office was there to help and protect people and would prosecute all cases of arson, graffiti, theft, vandalism and aggravated assault on a place of worship. He encouraged the gathering to dial 911 as a first responder if they saw something that was out of the ordinary, or call CrimeStoppers with tips and speak up if they notice an overt display of hate speech against a community or race on social media.

FBI Houston Supervisory Special Agent Tricia Sibley recommended two sites helpful in understanding hate crimes, hate symbols and their incidence – Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program FBI and StopHoustonGangs. In a recent report, Federal Bureau of Investigation logged 7,175 hate crimes in 2017, a 17% increase from the prior year that was caused by growing attacks against racial and religious minorities. The number represented the third consecutive year that hate crimes went up and the biggest year-by-year increase in hate crimes since 2001. Due to an increase in attacks on Hindu temples and individuals, the FBI began tracking hate crimes against Hindus since 2013.

FBI Houston Supervisory Special Agent Chris Johnson offered some broad based guidelines and resources on securing places of worship and how to survive an active shooter. Since 2014, 1016 hate crimes motivated by religious bias were reported and occurred at churches, temples, mosques, gurudwaras and synagogues.

While entering to a place of worship should be a welcoming experience, some easy security measures he suggested were: Invite local law enforcement personnel to your building during larger prayer services or meetings. Other than the main access points, all other access points should be locked during services. Fire alarm and sprinkler systems should be tested regularly

Ushers can be the first line of defense. They should be positioned at the main access points and trained to spot “something that doesn’t add up” such as nervous behavior, excess clothing or constant adjusting of clothing. Have ushers greet and talk to newcomers in the congregation Install surveillance cameras in conspicuous and inconspicuous places. The perception of surveillance could change someone’s behavior and help law enforcers apprehend the perpetrator. 74% of active shooters enter through the main access point. If you have only one camera, install it at the main access point.

Security cameras should employ good lighting.

In case of a suspicious item, do not touch or tamper with it. Dial 911 immediately.

In case of a threat by phone, do not hang up. If possible record the conversation, ask questions and write down the exact wording of the threat.

In case of a suspicious person, note down license plates, write down descriptions of what the person looked like and what they did. Such evidence is critical for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute if necessary.

A case of vandalism, no matter how minor, must be reported. Follow up with the appropriate officer regularly on the progress of the case. “See something, say something.” Call 911 if you spot suspicious behavior. Develop a plan and educate members of the congregation on the plan.

In case of an Active shooting:

In the wake of the 2012 shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin, Special Agent Johnson noted a dangerous trend in that the attacks are getting deadlier almost “as if the shooters are trying to outdo the previous shooting.”

A study of 160 active shooters in the US from 2000-2013 showed that 3.8% or 6 of them were at places of worship. 69% of the 160 incidents ended in 5 minutes or less. Law enforcement response time was 3 minutes and 67% of the incidents ended before the police arrived.

Some do’s and don’ts:

In case of an active shooter, evacuees should leave all personal belongings behind.

Avoid using elevators and escalators to escape. He recommended viewing a film on YouTube called “Run. Hide. Fight. Surviving an Active shooter.” During an active shooting, the three basic response actions are Run, hide or fight. Individuals can run away from the shooter, seek a secure place where they can hide or incapacitate the shooter with improvised weapons such as fire extinguishers or chairs. When hiding, silence electronic devices like cell phones, lock and barricade the door with heavy furniture, turn off lights and remain silent.

Provide first responders with a site plan including information about door and window locations as well as locks and access controls.

Commander Criminal Intelligence Division Houston Police Department M. Wyatt Martin clarified that the average response time after a 911 call is 5 minutes. He also encouraged the gathering to call Stephen Daniel at 713-308-3246 for a site security assessment and training in how to protect the place of worship.

Developing a strong relationship with the local commander is important in helping protect a place of worship. One can also text 911 now for emergencies while the non-emergency number is 713-884-3131.

Officer Martin strongly suggested the need for a plan of action, a plan of evacuation and a security committee to create a security plan. A good idea when entering a public place, he cautioned, is to check out the exits on the property. In a concluding panel discussion, representatives from Interfaith ministries – Rev. Gregory Han – IMG Interfaith, Dr. Zahra Jamal – Rice University, Jason Plotkin from the Synagogue, Kedar Thakker – BAPS Mandir and Morris Grunill from the Fort Bend Church shared the security protocols they utilize to protect their place of worship.

Security is a high priority for the BAPS Mandir. Ketan Thakker stated that BAPS looked at security through 2 perspectives – IT and people perspective. Since they host several events a year which sometimes attract almost eight thousand people, they take precautionary steps such as installing several cameras that are monitored, invite law enforcement to temple events, have officers present but in the end, he emphasized that “human vigilance is best.”

The Fort Bend Church has a carefully thought out multilayered system of security. Members are first greeted by parking lot attendants, then greeters and ushers. Security Officers are present on campus. During the week only one entrance is used except Sundays when all 6 entrances are used. An in house security committee meets once a year to review and revise security measures.

Other suggestions included conducting fire drills or exercises to make a quick departure from the space, “using proactive fellowship” to check out newcomers, monitoring social media for hate feeds, asking first time people to stand and be acknowledged, knowing the people in your immediate vicinity and “finally educate and create awareness without creating panic.”

The Hindu American Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group based in Washington D.C., has been actively working for years with the Department of Justice, law enforcement, and legislators across the country to track and address bias motivated attacks on Hindus and other religious and ethnic minorities. HAF also requests help in tracking incidents of identity-based or bias-motivated intimidation, threats, harassment, and violence being experienced in our communities by filling out the Bias-Motivated Crime Data Collection Form, if they or someone they know has experienced or witnessed an incident. Contact HAF for assistance at info@hafsite.org or 201-223-8222.

FEMA had a grant program of $150,000 to enhance the security of religious centers that are at risk for hate crimes. Organizations can apply at https://www.fema.gov/nonprofit-security-grant-program.

Other resources:

Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service (CRS) Visit justice.gov/crs

Find your regional FBI office at fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices

Learn about the FBI’s hate crime reporting process and statistics at fbi.gov/investigate/civil-rights/hate-crimes

Find hate crime data collection guidelines and a training manual at ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime-data-collection-guidelines-and-training-manual.pdf

Protector Security Advisor Program (PSA) provide voluntary security surveys and assessments of facilities. Visit dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/PSA-Program-Fact-Sheet-05-15-508.pdf.

Federal Emergency Management Agency: www.fema.gov/protecting-houses-worship

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