White Supremacists Targeted Her. Now She’s Fighting Hate Crime.


The words “Heil Hitler” and “gas chamber” were scrawled on walls at the Silver Gull in Queens, one of the city’s last beach clubs. A rabbi walking through a park in Brooklyn was punched in the face and bashed with a rock. A gay pride flag outside a Harlem bar was set on fire.

The New York Police Department says incidents like these this past summer are fueling a steep rise in hate crimes, which have increased 41 percent compared with the same time last year.

Now New York City is adopting an unusual strategy to combat the wave of bias-driven incidents: It has hired an anti-hate crime czar.

Deborah Lauter, the executive director of the newly created Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, will not investigate bias incidents; that will still be the purview of the Police Department, which has its own hate crimes task force.

Ms. Lauter, who spent 18 years as an executive for the Anti-Defamation League, said her office’s mission will be to create strategies to prevent bias incidents and coordinate the response to them with multiple city agencies.

“I was attracted to this position because it was geared to take a holistic approach to fight the escalating trend in hate crimes,” she said.

In her previous role, Ms. Lauter helped lead a national coalition to help pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Federal Hate Crimes Act, a federal law that provides funding and assistance to localities so that they can better investigate and prosecute bias crimes.

Encouraging hate crime victims to report bias incidents will also be a major focus of her new job. Undocumented immigrants, Muslims and members of the transgender community often do not report bias incidents, Ms. Lauter said, and one reason for that may be how the city responds to the victims.

If Ms. Lauter does her job well, she expects that the number of reported bias incidents will actually rise as her office’s education efforts spread.

“That’s part of the paradox,” she said in an interview.

The largest rise in hate crimes has been in anti-Semitic incidents, which have increased 63 percent to 152 incidents through Sept. 1, compared to 93 this time last year. Arrests in connection with these incidents have also risen by 20 percent.

There may not be a single cause for the increase, according to Dermot F. Shea, the chief of detectives for the Police Department.

“It’s probably a little bit of everything,” Chief Shea said. “A number of cases that I’ve highlighted, we’ve seen some mental illness. We’ve seen some people that just hate,” he added.

The new hate crimes office was created by the City Council earlier this year, after it passed a bill to amend the City Charter; Mayor Bill de Blasio did not veto or sign the bill, and it became law after 30 days.

The budget for the office for the 2020 fiscal year will be $1.7 million, then it will drop to $710,000 in subsequent years. Ms. Lauter, who will earn $150,000 per year, said she hopes to hire a staff of six.

Mark Levine, a councilman from Manhattan who introduced the legislation last year, along with Councilmen Chaim Deutsch of Brooklyn and Donovan Richards of Queens, said he was concerned that comparable city offices had much larger budgets and staffs.

“There has been an unleashing of hatred in this city, and we need to up the level of response to meet this crisis,” he said.

But Mr. Levine said that hiring Ms. Lauter was an important first step.

“It might look like we are sliding backward, but the first step in overcoming a problem is acknowledging it,” Mr. Levine said.

There is no question that there is a problem, in New York and beyond, that needs to be addressed, Ms. Lauter said.

A swastika scrawled on a subway column that goes unaddressed is part of a “continuum of hate,” she said. “Swastikas escalate into assault and harassment and then worse.”

As the victim of a hate crime, she should know.

While working for the A.D.L. in metropolitan Atlanta, Ms. Lauter, who is Jewish and keeps kosher, said she became the target of white supremacist groups affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. She came home one day, reached her hand into her mailbox and pulled out a “disgusting mixture” of pork and shellfish products.

“I knew the significance of that immediately, and it was frightening,” she said. “You realize they know where you live.”

Rather than use her law enforcement contacts, Ms. Lauter decided to call the local police to experience how the average person is treated when reporting a bias crime.

The officers she spoke with seemed “wholly unprepared,” she said.

She said she has used the experience to push for improvements to the bias crime response training that police officers receive.

Wade Henderson, the former president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, led the effort with Ms. Lauter to pass the federal hate crimes act.

He witnessed Ms. Lauter use her coalition-building experience to reach their goal — a skill that will come in handy in New York City as she develops a “potentially trendsetting model,” he said.

“This office comes at one of the most important times in the nation’s history,” said Mr. Henderson. “New York City will become a laboratory for collaborative efforts at ways to prevent this problem before it gets out of hand.”

Ms. Lauter said her first steps in New York City will be to meet with hate crime victims to identify weaknesses in the system and to figure out which response techniques are working and which should be revamped. There will also be an education campaign to prevent people from “becoming haters” in the first place, she said.

“We are going to do real work,” Ms. Lauter said. “This is not just an office with no real substance.”


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