FBI plans hate crime safety training for religious communities

These are troubling times for religious communities in Western Washington. There has been a series of vandalism and attacks in recent months, including smashed windows in several Catholic churches, fires at the Islamic Center of Tacoma and an explosive device set off at a mosque in Olympia. Earlier this month, someone deliberately rammed a car into a prayer room at an Islamic community center in Burien.

Religious communities here in western Washington are looking for ways to protect themselves. Now the FBI’s field office in Seattle is offering extended safety training. Supervisory Special Agent Ryan Bruett is the FBI’s Statewide Hate Crimes and Civil Rights Program Coordinator in Washington. He spoke to KUOW’s Kim Malcolm about the effort.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Agent Ryan Bruet: As you said, some recent events here in the greater Puget Sound area have occurred. And then also, the incident that was highly publicized in Texas, at Congregation Beth Israel, where the rabbi credited the training he received from the FBI and local law enforcement to help solve this incident. This has really caused many local places of worship here, both in the Jewish community and other faiths, to contact the FBI and their local law enforcement to request similar trainings.

Kim Malcolm: What specifically are people going to hear about in these trainings?

In the four sessions of this series, we will discuss what is a hate crime and what is hate speech? We will have a session on counter-terrorism, which includes domestic terrorism and international terrorism. We’ll also have a session on what to do to keep yourself and others safe if, God forbid, you’re in a facility and someone shoots. And we will talk about the protection of facilities. What can organizations do to strengthen their goals, protect their facilities and better train their staff?

Is there anything else to say than to install more lighting outside?

Absoutely. Our first session will be organized by CISA. This is the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the Department of Homeland Security. They do a fantastic job. They have local Protective Security Advisors in our area who can visit facilities, conduct site surveys and suggest ways to improve security and train ushers to keep people safe and identify flags red.

What kinds of red flags would people be looking for?

There is a long list. This includes things from how people are dressed. If they wear big, bulky overcoats in the summer, they may be hiding weapons or explosives. CISA does a great job. The people who work in these facilities and places of worship know what to expect and what people are generally like. They are in the best position to recognize these deviations from the norm. There are all kinds of things to look for, in terms of people’s behavior.

We have seen a national increase in reported hate crimes over the past five years. How would you interpret this increase in reported numbers?

We are aware of statistics and tracking and concerned about the growing numbers you quoted. The other side of the coin is that we recognize that hate crimes are traditionally under-reported crimes. We are concerned that crimes may occur where people have experienced or witnessed incidents of hate crimes and, for various reasons, have not reported them to law enforcement.

One of the reasons we hold awareness events like this is to teach people how important this is to us as law enforcement and to encourage reporting. We’d like to think that some of these proactive efforts have encouraged some people who otherwise might not have reported to do so. In this sense, more reports are a good thing.

What would you say to religious and minority communities on how to adapt to this time and protect themselves?

When you see something that concerns you, report it. Report it to the FBI. Report it to your local police. These incidents that do occur may not be considered hate crimes in the eyes of the law. We do not expect the community to understand what may or may not be a hate crime. If in doubt, report it and let law enforcement do their job of assessing and responding.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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