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Hate crimes increased in Sonoma County in 2017, according to state Department of Justice report

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Hate crimes jumped sharply in Sonoma County last year, mirroring a statewide increase in crimes against people targeted for their race, sexual orientation, religion or gender, according to a new state report.

Sixteen hate crimes were reported to Sonoma County authorities in 2017, up from 10 the previous year, the state Department of Justice reported Monday. Half of those incidents happened in Petaluma, which reported only one hate crime the previous year.

The remaining crimes occurred in unincorporated Sonoma County, Santa Rosa and Windsor.

Local and state authorities on Tuesday could not detail the nature of the crimes in Sonoma County or explain the reasons for the increase.

Statewide, hate crimes increased by double-digits for the third consecutive year, rising 17.4 percent last year.

Just over half of the crimes statewide involved bias against race, ethnicity or national origin, the report shows. Nearly a quarter of the crimes targeted people based on their sexual orientation.

Christian Sullberg, president of Positive Images, a Santa-Rosa based support and advocacy center for LGBTQ youth, said Sonoma County is generally a great area to live for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. But it is also home to people who “have that aggression,” he said.

“We are definitely hearing from our membership that the amount of hate and discrimination has been more than in the past,” Sullberg said.

He added that some LGBTQ-identifying people may be reluctant to report a hate crime after seeing negative interactions between police officers and other members of the LGBTQ community in the news, or for fear that they may be misgendered by an officer.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Misti Harris said she encouraged community members to report crimes, regardless of their background.

“We want to help you and we want to help prevent that from happening to another person later on,” Harris said.

She was not able to provide information about the hate crimes referred to in the DOJ report on short notice, she said.

Petaluma reported eight bias-based crimes last year involving eight suspects and 10 victims, the DOJ said. Five hate crimes were reported in the unincorporated county last year, while Santa Rosa saw two and Windsor one.

Only one case was referred to the District Attorney’s Office and later charges were filed by prosecutors, the DOJ report said.

Brian Staebell, chief deputy district attorney for the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, could not provide details on the case Tuesday. He said it was difficult to determine the accuracy of the data without being able to look back at the particular cases referenced in the DOJ report, as well as examining the context of those cases.

“The standard to meet is very high,” he said of hate crimes generally. “What the actual statute requires is, basically, we have to have the evidence to be able to prove a person’s particular intent to commit the crime.”

The report, titled “Hate Crime in California,” comes on the heels of a profanity-laced viral video last week that documented a man disrupting a Petaluma family’s Fourth of July celebration to complain about hearing Spanish music coming from their home.

Though Petaluma police responded and took notes about the incident, the department determined the man had not committed a crime by knocking on the family’s door, and then walking away after speaking to them.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.