From the Editor: Fighting hate crimes in Ottawa – and online

By Michael Regenstreif, Editor

“The Ottawa Police Services hate crime unit is investigating incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti at Ottawa’s two largest synagogues and at a home in the Glebe neighbourhood used as a Jewish Renewal prayer and study centre,” was the lede to the front page story I wrote for the November 28, 2016 edition of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.

The reason I referred to that article was that reports surfaced this month questioning the very existence of the Ottawa Police Services (OPS) hate crime unit – and even whether it ever actually existed.

Early this month, a black family’s home in Ottawa was spray-painted with disgusting racist graffiti. According to CBC reporter Amanda Pfeffer, when CBC News asked if the hate crime unit was investigating the case, the police spokesperson said the unit had been “retired.”

Pfeffer reports that a follow-up statement by Superintendent Chris Renwick of the criminal investigations directorate said, “The Ottawa Police Service does not have a Hate Crime Unit, in fact we never had a dedicated investigative unit for hate crimes.”

Renwick added that criminal acts “motivated by hate are assigned and investigated by our General Assignment Units (GAS)…. Our Security and Intelligence Section (SIS) can offer investigative support to the GAS investigators during an investigation [into a crime] which is motivated by hate or extremism.”

And in yet a further clarification, Renwick explained that a constable’s position was created in the 1990s “to address hate crimes,” but that the position “has an intelligence focus and not an investigative one.”

According to Pfeffer, “that appears to contradict specific references to a hate crime unit in public statements and media reports dating back years, including a reference on the OPS website and in an internal policy document obtained by CBC.”

As of this writing, the OPS website still includes a hate crime unit information page.

Also, according to Pfeffer, “several police sources tell CBC the hate crime unit did exist, but has not had dedicated officers assigned to it in more than a year.”

Finally, after several days of confusion, Interim OPS Chief Steve Bell told CBC News that the hate crime unit was “renamed or moved over to the Security and Intelligence” section in January 2017.

Although Bell noted that OPS takes hate crimes seriously, he admitted “you go to our website and it directs you to a hate crime unit, and we actually don’t have that specific entity.”

The confusion and contradictions about the hate crime unit is unacceptable. Hate crimes have been on the increase in Canada and around the world and Jews are the most targeted minority in many places. Dedicated police units with specific expertise in preventing and investigating hate crimes can be an important component in helping minority communities at risk feel secure in contemporary society.

The Internet and social media, which provide great opportunities for people of common interests to come together, also provide opportunities for hate-mongers to spread their beliefs. The most heinous hate crimes in recent years have included murderous attacks on two synagogues in the U.S. and on mosques in Canada and New Zealand, and the killers in these cases have been shown to be active on social media sites – the gunman in the Christchurch mosque attack in March even livestreamed part of his killing spree on Facebook.

To begin a concerted international effort to combat online hate, the leaders of many major countries, including Canada, New Zealand, France, the United Kingdom and the European Union met in a “Christchurch Call” summit in Paris this month that also included representatives of Google, Microsoft, Twitter and several other tech companies.

These leaders and companies are well aware of the scope and magnitude of the problem. As Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, noted in a statement commending Canada’s participation in this effort, “Online radicalization has quickly become one of the most urgent and complex challenges facing security officials. As demonstrated in recent attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, as well as the attack on mosques in Christchurch, there is a clear link between online radicalization and real-world violence.”

Sadly, the Trump administration in the United States has declined to participate in this international effort.