Hate crimes are on the rise, but law enforcement is watching

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Two weeks after the deadly Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, hate crimes statistics have revealed a 17 percent increase in incidents since 2016.

"This report is a call to action, and we will heed that call," said Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker in a statement. "The Department of Justice's top priority is to reduce violent crime in America, and hate crimes are violent crimes."

Across the country the state of hate seems be on the rise. In the past couple weeks the Chicago area has witnessed anti-Semitic incidents in schools and potential felony hate crimes.

On Chicago's North Shore, just days after the mass shooting at the Tree Of Life Synagogue near Pittsburgh, Highland Park police received reports of threatening phone calls made to the Central Avenue Synagogue.

"Our detectives were able to identify that individual within 24 hours, very quickly, and then we worked with our state's attorney to make the appropriate charges," said Highland Park Police Chief Lou Jogmen. "We take it very personally that our residents feel safe, that people visiting town and shopping or going to school feel safe."

Dean R. West, 39, of Winthrop Harbor was arrested and charged with making the threatening phone calls, a Class 3 felony hate crime. His lawyer declined to comment.

"We certainly will not tolerate any hate here in Highland Park," said Commander Bill Bonaguidi, Highland Park Police.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 34 hate groups active in Illinois, targeting nearly every race, religion and sexual orientation. The Anti-Defamation League maintains a H.E.A.T map, which stands for Hate, Extremism, Anti-Semitism and Terrorism.

CLICK HERE to explore the H.E.A.T. map

"It's not as if we have no extremist activity nor is it a state that has a lot of extremist activity, we're kind of in the middle," said Lonnie Nasatir, Midwest Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

As hate crimes continue to climb across the country safety experts in Illinois invited the ABC7 I-Team for a rare look at the Statewide Terrorism & Intelligence Center, or STIC.

The nerve center is housed inside a sleek and tightly guarded building on the outskirts of Springfield, where state law enforcement officials stand watch against hate crime plots and monitor simmering tensions. STIC is managed by the Illinois State Police and mostly funded by the Department of Homeland Security.

The operation monitors not only domestic hate groups but also foreign terrorists.

Chief Intelligence Officer Aaron Kustermann said about 50 experts work in this facility, also known as a "fusion center."

"This facility is the plumbing to get that intelligence to local safety officials," said Kustermann. "So if something is happening in Illinois and we see an uptick in things, we can set in place ways to look for that kind of information. But it's sensitive work and we must do that in concert with the Constitution."

He also revealed that intelligence experts are fielding information daily as it comes and there are times they are on the dark web seeking out Illinois hate groups.

The STIC will continue doubling down on efforts even as the center is temporarily relocated in the next few weeks so a new and expanded center can be built.
The vein of racial intolerance isn't always as violent as seen last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a Unite the Right rally turned deadly. But authorities say hate is slowly going mainstream.

One example is proud racist Art Jones, a Holocaust denier and Nazi sympathizer, who ran for Illinois' 3rd Congressional District seat. He lost, but received about 25 percent of the vote.

"We had eight or nine people in this election cycle that were either avowed neo-Nazis or at least align themselves with the neo-Nazi movement, that's like nothing we've ever seen before," said Nasatir.

In the past two weeks, state and local law enforcement have seen a surge in racial and religious vandalism and acts of violence.

Racist graffiti was found on campus at Oak Park and River Forest High School and an image of a swastika was sent to students during an assembly using the iPhone Airdrop feature.

At nearby Trinity High School this past Wednesday there was another swastika incident and in Lombard, a convenience store clerk has been charged with a hate crime after allegedly yelling racial slurs at customers and slashing their car tires.

Julie Justicz of the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights said her group has seen a rise in the number of hate crimes and hate incidents.

"A lot of cases I've dealt with have been individuals who have committed instances of crime and we believe that they are just probably individuals who for whatever reason have been motivated by increased political rhetoric to act out and they are not part of an organized group," Justicz said.

"I think it's really important that people across Chicago and across the country stand up and speak out against these hate incidents -- without that I think we can look at continued increase," she said.
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