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Shining a light on hate crimes - DA panel reaches out to Brooklyn’s LGBT community in discussing difficult cases

It is an ugly reality, but hatred still lives in Brooklyn.

In 2007, 117 hate crimes were reported to the NYPD in this borough alone, of a total of 312 hate crimes citywide.

These numbers may not even reveal the true extent of the problem. Cops and prosecutors acknowledge that hate crimes remain “severely underreported.”

This challenge was one of many topics considered during a recent panel discussion in Park Slope. “A Voice After Violence: Investigation and Prosecution of Hate Crimes Against the LGBT Community” was held at the Prospect Park YMCA.

The event was organized by Kings Country District Attorney Charles Hynes as part of a renewed effort to reach out to Brooklyn’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community.

The panel included top prosecutors and police brass.

While there was much talk about the difficulty in identifying and prosecuting such cases, there was also discussion about the progress that has been made.

Most notable was the creation of New York’s Hate Crimes Act in 2000.

This civil rights law provides longer prison sentences for criminals who act out of bias against a victim’s race, gender, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation.

In his remarks, Hynes contrasted two high-profile cases to demonstrate the strides that have been made.

Hynes prosecuted the racially charged Howard Beach case of 1987. Twenty-three-year-old Michael Griffith of Bedford-Stuyvesant was killed after being hit by a car in Howard Beach. He was chased onto the highway by a mob of white youths.

Despite securing three homicide convictions, Hynes expressed his regrets.

“I came away with a feeling of helplessness that we couldn’t charge what this crime was all about. He was killed because of his skin color,” Hynes said.

Twenty years later, Hynes’ office prosecuted a much different but also highly-publicized case. However, this time new laws allowed prosecutors to zero in on why the victim was targeted.

A group of men met Michael Sandy, 29, in a gay internet chat site and lured him to Sheepshead Bay in October 2006.

The group tried to rob Sandy and then chased him onto the Belt Parkway. Sandy was hit by a car and later died. All four of Sandy’s attackers were charged with hate crimes and are now serving prison sentences.

“We proved that someone was killed because he was targeted because of his perceived vulnerability,” Hynes said.

Assistant District Attorney Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi, who prosecuted the case, said the case was unusual in that prosecutors used a seldom-used clause in the state’s hate crime bill. While they couldn’t prove the perpetrators attacked Michael Sandy because of hatred toward gay men, they were able to establish that he was selected because of his sexual orientation.

“We made a decision that it was exactly the kind of case that the legislature, we believe, was looking at when they enacted this provision,” Nicolazzi said.

Assistant District Attorney Charles Guria, who serves as the District Attorney’s Civil Rights Bureau Chief, said his office deals with many obstacles.

“We often have to convince and educate jurors. A lot of people would like to think this doesn’t go on anymore,” Guria said.

Long before cases head to the courtroom, Guria said many victims are afraid to report crimes, fearful they will be targeted again or that their privacy will be jeopardized.

“We do a lot to try to make people feel comfortable to come forward and report these crimes,” Guria said, praising the team of social workers that counsel victims.

About 20 percent of hate crimes are physical attacks, Guria said, the remainder being verbal attacks and property crimes.

Guria encouraged victims to report all crimes, noting that “often it escalates if they get away with other types of lower level hate crimes.”

Inspector Michael Osgood, commanding officer of the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force, said that special reporting procedures are in place to respond to a suspected hate crime.

The inspector said that when one person is targeted for a hate crime, an entire group of people is victimized.

“You can have a crime where you have one million victims, and one million angry people,” Osgood said.

Citywide, the NYPD experienced a 30 percent increase in reported hate crimes in 2007, while reported hate crimes have fallen in Brooklyn from 117 in 2007 from 160 in 2006.

Osgood said that about 50 of the 312 hate crimes were committed against members of the LGBT community.

“As a group, they incur the most number of assaults,” Osgood said.

Detective Thomas Verni is the LGBT community liaison for the city’s police department and also works to train new police recruits.

Verdi said many victims are hesitant to make a report because they fear they’re not going to be treated professionally by the police department.

“They think this is the police department of the 1950’s,” Verdi said. “I’m not going to say everything’s perfect, but certainly great strides have been made.”

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