Hate crimes motivated by religion and national origin almost doubled last year in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to an attorney general's report released Friday.
Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth called the increase "a lamentable response by citizens who let their fear and outrage push them into inappropriate and inexcusable actions."
Since 1989 Florida has recognized hate crimes as acts of hatred toward a victim based on race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, age or disability.
A total of 335 hate crimes were reported in Florida last year, an increase of 24.5 percent from 2000. Officials blamed the surge on outrage after the Sept. 11 attacks.
During the past decade fewer than one in four hate crimes were motivated by religion or ethnicity. Last year those two factors accounted for almost half the hate crimes committed statewide.
In Central Florida, 59 hate crimes were reported. Orange, the most populous county, had 20, followed by Volusia with 15. Race, religion and national origin accounted for all but six incidents.
Officials said although they could not determine the precise impact of Sept. 11, it was obvious the terrorist attacks had an effect. A number of Florida cities and counties reported that all hate crimes for the year occurred after Sept. 11.
The report did not break down the specific race or nationality of the victims.
Taleb Salhab, a spokesman for the Arab American Community Center in Central Florida, said many people didn't report harassment and threats out of fear.
"The first three of four months after Sept. 11 were really bad," he said. "Women who covered their heads were afraid to go out."
Salhab said local law-enforcement agencies helped keep the number of hate crimes from being worse by taking a zero-tolerance attitude.
Orange County Sheriff's Office spokesman Capt. Bernie Presha said five hate crimes have been reported since the beginning of this year.
Deputies are still looking for the suspect in a case that may have been fueled by heated emotions last October.
A $5,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the person responsible for shooting into the white Lexus of an unidentified man of Middle-Eastern descent Oct. 2. The driver was taking his young daughter to school when a gunshot from a Ford pickup on the Bee Line Expressway blasted out the man's rear window. The shot barely missed the little girl who was riding in the back seat.
Earlier this week, state and federal agents fanned out to reassure Muslim communities after the arrest of Dr Robert J. Goldstein, 37, of Pinellas County, on charges of plotting to blow up mosques and schools statewide.
Mark NeJame, an Orlando criminal-defense attorney who is active in the Arab-American community, said some Central Florida residents of Middle-Eastern descent were not only targeted in hate crimes but were persecuted in other ways.
"Authorities hide behind words like `Arabic men' or `investigated by a terrorist specialist,' " NeJame said about those whom he said were unfairly jailed for questioning.
Heritage is not the only factor in hate crimes, however. State officials also track crimes motivated by sexual orientation and age.
A Deltona family came home two weeks ago to find racial slurs and swastikas scrawled on their home. About 400 churchgoers surrounded the home a week later to show support to William and La- Tara Walker.
"We are healing," La-Tara Walker said.
Butterworth said he would like tougher consequences for hate crimes but acknowledged in Friday's report that real changes come from the heart.
Source: Orlando Sentinel