Palm Springs reports rise in anti-gay hate crimes

In Palm Springs, hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation jumped from three cases in 2009 to 14 in 2010. San Francisco recorded six incidents in 2009 and 24 in 2010.

Rhonda Long, administrative services officer for the Palm Springs Police Department, said she could not explain the uptick in cases without looking at them individually. Long said the department was taking steps to prevent hate crimes in the community.

Officers complete sensitivity training, which is provided by the district attorney's office. The Anti-Defamation League also trains officers to identify what may constitute a hate crime. Officers also encourage people to contact police if they are having conflicts with others, instead of allowing something to potentially escalate into a violent confrontation, Long said.

The police department has been rebuilding its image within the gay community since a 2009 scandal. Palm Springs Police Chief David Dominguez retired in January after he was accused of -- and later admitted -- making insensitive comments during a sex sting operation in 2009 targeting gay men who officers believed were having sex in a public park restroom. Officers arrested 19 people in the operation.

"What a bunch of filthy mother (expletive)," Dominguez allegedly said. "You guys should get paid extra for this."

The suspects were charged with misdemeanor lewd conduct and indecent exposure, which would have required them to register for life as sex offenders. Most ended up accepting a plea agreement in March to drop the indecent exposure charge, allowing them to avoid registering.

As part of the deal, six pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace, while five pleaded guilty to lewd conduct. Deputy Public Defender Roger Tansey said he planned to appeal the decision.

Some argued that the move was unfairly harsh and that the department was discriminating against gay men. In court, attorneys argued that the police did not apply the same level of scrutiny to reports of heterosexual sex in a public parking garage.

Tansey said the sting was part of a pattern for the police department -- every few years, they would "go out and round up the gay guys," he said.

But as the controversy continued over the police department's sting, hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation were accumulating faster than before. By the end of 2010, nearly five times as many sexual orientation-based hate crimes had been reported in Palm Springs as in 2009.

A 15-year-old boy pleaded guilty in September 2010 to felony vandalism and a hate crime after spray-painting anti-gay slurs on several homes, including some where openly gay people lived.

In August 2010, a group of men was accused of throwing food, utensils and other restaurant items at four men perceived to be gay in a 4:30 a.m. confrontation in a Palm Springs IHOP; one of the men was cut by the flying glass.

Last month, police say Reggie Cameron was hit in the face with a chunk of asphalt as his attackers called him an anti-gay slur. Cameron was leaving a meeting with city officials about upcoming gay pride events, KESQ reported.

In another case, Palm Springs residents Russell Allen Bates, 24, and Abigail Monet Sheehy, 19, were charged with battery and committing a hate crime May 21 when they yelled anti-gay slurs as they assaulted a same-sex couple in an argument over a parking spot, police say.

Tansey, the public defender, said there could be several explanations for the increase in reported hate crimes. Either the botched sting operation caused police to be more sensitive to hate crimes against gays, or the coverage of the scandal caused more hate crimes in the community. Without access to more data, Tansey said, it is difficult to reach a conclusion.

Mike Balasa, co-president of the Coachella Valley chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said the department has come a long way since the sting. Palm Springs officers marched in a pride parade in town last week for the first time, along with Riverside County sheriff's deputies and California Highway Patrol officers, Balasa said.

"It was very moving," he said. "It's just a wonderful commitment to diversity in our community, and that's what our community is really all about. We like to believe everybody can come here and feel safe."

Tansey said officers now treat straight and gay couples equally when they find people having sex in public – in both cases, the couples are arrested, and officers no longer perform sting operations.

Balasa and his wife serve on an outreach committee to the police department. He wasn't sure whether the increase in reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation was the result of an increase in crime or a sign that residents were more comfortable notifying the police department.

But he blamed conservative political and religious leaders for fanning the flames of homophobia by claiming that same-sex marriage will destroy communities and that learning about the gay community is harmful to children.

"It just encourages fringe people and people who are a little bit uncontrolled, or maybe not mentally stable, to act on these things," Balasa said.

Some estimates have put the population of gays and lesbians in Palm Springs as high as 30 to 40 percent. Three members of the City Council are openly gay, but none of the city's 99 police officers are.

Nationally, the recently released FBI report showed that 19.3 percent of all hate crimes -- 1,528 incidents -- were motivated by sexual orientation. This marks an increase from 18.5 percent in 2009 and 17.7 percent in 2008.

A report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that hate crimes in the Coachella Valley most often are motivated by sexual orientation.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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