County To Tackle Hate Crimes

Swastika graffiti in Stewart Manor last year

In light of what Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas called a “troubling and disturbing” increase in hate crimes around the county, a specially dedicated hate crimes unit has been created in order to more effectively prosecute perpetrators. The announcement came fresh on the heels of a recent wave of bomb threats on several JCC community centers around Long Island, and Singas suggested that the creation of the specialized unit is happening not a moment too soon.

“The bottom line is [hate crimes have] gone up,” Singas said. “We felt we needed to let people know that we’re serious about prosecuting people who discriminate over race, religion, gender and sexuality.”

Veteran prosecutor Caryn Stepner has been selected by Singas to head the unit. Stepner, who joined the district attorney’s office in 2014, has tried more than 60 felony cases throughout a career that began as an assistant in the Kings County District Attorney’s office. Singas cited Stepner’s experience as making her an ideal fit for the role.

“Caryn has been a prosecutor for more than 27 years,” Singas said. “She’s tried racially motivated cases before. She’s passionate about her work, she’s experienced, she’s well-trained and she’s very comforting.”

Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas

“I feel honored that DA Singas chose me to lead the unit,” Stepner added, revealing that the unit would be comprised of more than 30 detective investigators. “We are getting the word out every day that hate crimes will not be tolerated.”

The Nassau County District Attorney’s office reports that they have prosecuted 13 hate crime cases since 2014, all of which were felonies and eight of which have occurred since 2016. However, at a December press conference regarding a swastika that had been spray-painted in Mineola, Nassau County Lieutenant Richard Lebrun revealed that 48 bias incidents had been reported since the beginning of 2016, a number which has since gone up. Singas noted that, while her office always treated hate crimes with seriousness, having a specialized unit in place could give the county the tools it needs to investigate and prosecute cases with higher frequency.

“We’re definitely taking this very seriously right now. We’re out there talking to people,” Singas said, going on to suggest that the county becomes more effective at handling certain types of cases with the passage of time, citing domestic violence as an example. “I think all together [the unit] will have a positive effect. We [eventually] become good at prosecuting certain types of crime, and we’re sending a very strong message that our office will target those who target others.”

“On Long Island, we’ve seen reports of KKK recruitment literature being distributed on trains, swastikas being painted on buildings and most recently, a terroristic threat to the JCC in Plainview,” Stepner said, adding that the county feels it must “redouble” its efforts. “Now more than ever, it is important to let the community know that these hateful offenses will not be tolerated.”

Though there has been much speculation and debate as to whether or not Donald Trump’s election has contributed to any recent expressions of hate-based language and behavior, Singas stated that it would be difficult to determine a singular, direct causation.

“It’s always hard to say,” she reflected. “I don’t know if people feel emboldened or if we are more aware of [hate crimes] or if it’s being reported more.”

However, while lamenting the fact that discrimination remains a problem in society, Singas identified all the attention the instances have received as a sort of silver lining, suggesting that people are becoming more concerned about hate crimes and more passionate about stopping them.

“I do [think there’s been progress],” Singas said. “People become educated on it, more in tune to it. It’s always important to have discourse and discussion in society, to say that this is intolerable in a civilized society. I think that’s all good, if people aren’t scared to come forward. But it’s bad that [hate crimes are] happening at all.”

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Joseph Catrone is the former editor of Farmingdale Observer, Hicksville News, Levittown Tribune and Massapequa Observer.

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