San Diego

District Attorney Details Complexity of Hate Crime Investigations

Saturday’s shooting at the Chabad of Poway has many people asking if there's a way to prevent a similar crime.

NBC 7 Investigates checked with local law enforcement agencies about how they keep an eye on potential hate crimes and found that many local agencies don't even have a dedicated hate crime units.

For the most part, they say their detectives and officers will investigate underlying crimes, and then decide if hate was a motivating factor.

"As horrific as hateful speech can be, sometimes by itself that doesn't constitute a hate crime,” San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said.

Stephan can't talk about the case in Poway – the suspect, 19-year-old John T. Earnest of San Diego, is due in court for the first time Tuesday –but did she did share how certain crimes are deemed hate crimes.

"We look at writings, anything on social media. We look at the person’s history before their affiliations with any group that fosters hate,” she said.

The challenge for law enforcement in stopping the next crime from happening is that most hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.

According to Stephan, an investigation can't start unless a threat is made or a crime is suspected to be motivated by hate.

Former San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis says lack of resources present another problem because investigating hate as a motive takes time.

"Traditional areas would be Facebook, anything that's online, what was said when the witnesses were interviewed,” she said.

Several local police departments and the San Diego Sheriff's Department told NBC 7 their investigators will look into hate as a motive after a crime has already occurred.

But, preventing a hate crime usually only happens when a threat is made and there's time to investigate it.

It's still not clear if police agencies will begin shifting their focus and resources to monitor online hate speech more closely in an effort to prevent these tragedies before they happen.

Stephan told NBC 7 that locally, hate crimes have doubled over the past year and nationally they're up 40 percent.

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