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Justice Department, FBI officials discuss hate crime with Indian-Americans in Houston

Officials from the FBI, Dept. of Justice, Harris County District Attorney’s office and Houston Police Department, met with Indian-Americans at an event hosted by the organization, Hindus of Greater Houston (HGH), April 6.

The community organization Hindus of Greater Houston, held a meeting with federal and local law enforcement officials on hate crime and how to safeguard places of worship. Seen in photo, from left, front row — Morris Grunill, Fort Bend Church; Dr. Zahra Jamal, Rice University; Rev Gregory Han, IMG –Interfaith; Jason Plotkin, Jewish representative; Shri Kedar Thakker, BAPS Mandir Admin. Back row. standing, from left — Vijay Pallod, Kim Milstead (Dept. of Justice), Harpeet Mocha (Dept. of Justice); Tara Narasimhan; Bhawna Luthra, Gopal Agarwal, Partha Krishnaswamy; Girish Naik; Sreemathy Ranga, Raj Shah. (Photo courtesy HGH)

At the forum, entitled, “Understanding Hate Crimes and Protection of Places of Worship” facilitated by the United States Department of Justice Community Relations Services (CRS), law enforcement officials recommended numerous steps to make places of worship safe, and how to respond, as well as the legal definition of hate crime and aspects of the issue the community should be aware of, according to a press release from HGH.

Representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, Harris County District Attorney’s office, FBI Houston Field Office, Department of Homeland Security and Harris County Sheriff’s Office spoke at the event.

About 40 faith based organizations attended the forum which was held at the Houston Durgabari Society, the press release said.

The event touched on four issues: Hate Crimes Prosecutions Overview, Hate Crimes Statistics and Symbols of Hate, Preventing and Responding to Active Shooter Situations and a Panel Discussion on Protecting Places of Worship by Interfaith Leaders.

The meeting was the brain child of HGH Past President Partha Krishnaswamy.

Almost all the presenters pointed out that expressing hate, name calling and the display of offensive symbols, no matter how vile, are not in-and-of-themselves criminal. The Constitution is bound to protect the rights of even those who indulge in hate speech. It has to rise to the level of a criminal act before law enforcement agencies can take action.

Moderator Harpreet Singh Mocha and Kim Milstead, both from the U.S. Justice Department were instrumental in putting the program together, the HGH said.

Sharad Khandelwal, deputy chief U.S. attorney from the Office of the Southern District of Texas, kicked off the program by highlighting the Jan. 28, 2017 attack on the Victoria Islamic Center, a mosque about 80 miles away, in Victoria, Texas which was burned to the ground.

It was emotionally devastating for its congregation but Khandelwal noted the outpouring of support from the community, the prayer vigil which brought members of other religious communities to support those affected, and the churches and synagogues which their premises for worship until the mosque was rebuilt.

All the agencies used “every single law enforcement method and technology to crack the case,” the press release quotes Khandelwal saying. The perpetrator was charged with a hate crime that got him 24 years of prison time.

Speakers included Bureau Chief-Special Crimes Harris County District Attorney’s Office Ruben R. Perez; FBI Houston Supervisory Special Agent Tricia Sibley; FBI Houston Supervisory Special Agent Chris Johnson; and Commander Criminal Intelligence Division Houston Police Department M. Wyatt Martin, among others.

With the rise in hate crimes, and because of an increase in attacks on Hindu temples and individuals, the FBI began tracking hate crimes against Hindus since 2013, HGH said.

Among the steps suggested to guard against any possibility of hate crime attacks, officials recommended inviting local law enforcement personnel during larger prayer services or meetings; locking all access points other than the main entrance; testing all fire alarm and sprinkler systems regularly, positioning ushers to main access points and training them to spot  “something that doesn’t add up” such as nervous behavior, excess clothing or constant adjusting of clothing.

Other steps suggested included installing surveillance cameras in conspicuous and inconspicuous places; In case of a threat by phone, do not hang up, but instead record the conversation, ask questions and write down the exact wording of the threat.

A case of vandalism, no matter how minor, must be reported. Follow up with the appropriate officer regularly on the progress of the case.

In the event of an active shooter incident, Johnson noted that after the 2012 attack on the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, there was a dangerous trend in that the attacks are getting deadlier almost “as if the shooters are trying to outdo the previous shooting.”

Among the somewhat reassuring statistics the HGH members heard was that a study of 160 active shooter incidents in the U.S. from 2000-2013 showed 3.8% or 6 of them were at places of worship; 69% of the 160 incidents ended in 5 minutes or less; Law enforcement response time was 3 minutes; and 67% of the incidents ended before the police arrived.

Johnson also suggested watching a film on YouTube called “Run. Hide. Fight. Surviving an Active shooter,” which also outlines specific steps one can take to be safe and inform authorities.

Officer Martin, commander of the Criminal Intelligence Division,  Houston Police Department, clarified that the average response time after a 911 call is 5 minutes. He also encouraged the gathering to call Stephen Daniel at 713-308-3246 for a site security assessment and training in how to protect the place of worship.

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