Brentwood decides how to respond to hate crimes

The kidnapping and beheading of Brentwood's landmark fiberglass cow, Betsy, is the rural town's most recent claim to fame and media attention.

But this week's news was more upbeat, and has nothing to do with the cow.

In an effort spearheaded by Brentwood Chief of Police Larry Shaw in March 2000, eastern Contra Costa County law enforcement and school district representatives were set to sign an agreement yesterday detailing efforts to curtail hate- and bias-related incidents in the area.

Over the past few years, as Brentwood has changed from a small farming town to a bedroom community, the population of minority groups has grown, including Jews, Latinos and African-Americans.

With this influx in cultural diversity has come a new challenge to area policing agencies: hate- and bias-related crime. It is a phenomenon seen throughout most of eastern Contra Costa County, which also includes Oakley, Pittsburg, Antioch and several unincorporated areas.

The seven-page agreement is a protocol for unified response and prompt action to hate crime and racially biased incidents. It defines those incidents and gives specific guidelines for how law enforcement and schools can identify them.

It also "sheds light on those behaviors" which can lead to hate crimes, said Shaw.

The agreement was drafted cooperatively by regional police departments, school districts, the district attorney, the U.S. Department of Justice, the county probation department and the Anti-Defamation League.

By signing the agreement, Shaw said, schools and law-enforcement agencies are agreeing to "train their people on the subject and hopefully, at the same time, heighten awareness."

"Everyone has jumped in and said this is the right time to do this," said Shaw. "We don't want the seed planted in the mind of current residents and those who move here that there is tolerance for discrimination."

Some past victims of hate crimes, however, are skeptical the agreement will do much good. Brentwood resident Karen Burdt, for one, worries that it is just "a lot of lip service."

"This town has held a very white supremacist attitude that goes back a long way," said Burdt, who is Jewish. "You can't change that overnight. Telling them how to handle the situation doesn't solve the basic problem at the core for the community."

Burdt's family was allegedly victimized by neighborhood teenagers in 1996. A swastika was found drawn in chalk near the family's mezuzah, garbage and eggs were thrown in the yard, and graffiti covered the garage door. The graffiti, which was illegibly scrawled with ketchup and mustard, seemed to contain a swastika and a reference to World War II, said Burdt.

To this day, Burdt said she remains unsatisfied with the way a Brentwood police officer had handled the situation. While the daughter of next-door neighbors admitted to vandalizing the yard with friends, all between ages 12 and 14, no one admitted to drawing the swastika in chalk. Burdt said police let the situation go at that, without any reprimands whatsoever.

"Vandalism is one thing, but this was another," Burdt said. "I don't understand why the police were so reluctant to do anything about it."

Several years later, in August 1999, Burdt said she began receiving death threats over the phone. The calls began to occur soon after a shooting spree wounded five at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in suburban Los Angeles. Burdt said she feared the calls were being made because her family is Jewish.

"They basically swept it under the rug," said Burdt of the police.

"I have a lot of fear, all the time, that something else could happen," she added.

Other groups appear to have been targeted. In November 1999, for instance, a cross was chemically burned in the lawn of an African-American family in Brentwood and several African-American students withdrew from Bristow Middle School after reportedly being victimized. Around the same time, Burdt said she remembers hearing that "KKK" had been etched in the sidewalk in front of a Latino neighbor's home.

At Freedom High School in Oakley last month, a noose was found on the classroom door of an African-American counselor and basketball coach.

Discussing the incidents in Brentwood, Shaw believes past police action has been appropriate. But, he said, the police are trying to look toward the future, rather than dwell on the past.

"This is an issue that has plagued our country from the beginning of time and we're not immune," said Shaw. "We are trying to lay down a path for prevention."

He said the new agreement is a proactive approach to the changes occurring in eastern Contra Costa County. Using Brentwood as an example of the growth and changing demographics in the region, Shaw said, "In just one month we've given out 600 business permits. In the recent past it has taken one year to give out 500."

Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Central Pacific Region of the ADL, said he believes Shaw and local police agencies are "trying to do the right thing." The ADL hopes to play an active role in assisting with training and education whenever necessary, so people will no longer feel like racially motivated crimes are "an issue the police don't take seriously."

The next step, said Shaw, is to start ongoing training programs for local police and teachers. Rather than just showing videos, he would like to organize engaging programs, including those that bring in former members of hate groups to speak.