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Hate crimes in Maine are on the rise, experts say

At a forum on hate crimes in Portland on Friday, national hate crime expert Dr. Frank Pezzella says a spike in hate crimes in recent years can be traced to the 2016 presidential election, when he says offenders became emboldened and angry about changes in their communities.

In Maine, Pezzella says, that came at the same time as an influx of immigrants.

"Where you have that increase in diversity, you're going to see that friction between people who have lived there traditionally and newcomers, because there's a feeling that they're taking jobs, they're taking homes, and they're not entitled because they haven't lived here," Pezzella said.

Pezzella says the true scope of hate crimes in Maine is not known, because victims often don't report them and police misclassify the crimes. That disconnect, he says, must be rectified with better collaboration between law enforcement and marginalized communities.

Law enforcement from across the state Friday trained on hate crime prevention, a move intended to foster trust between victims and those whose job it is to protect them.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin says in Maine Civil Rights Act injunctions have been effective at stopping most hate crime offenders from acting again.

"We have brought about 300 civil rights actions since the Maine Civil Rights Act was passed in 1992," Robbin said. "We have 300 permanent injunctions out there prohibiting people from violating the act. If you violate the injunction then it's a criminal violation. And we've only had ten."

Robbin says hate crime offenders can spend up to 364 days in jail and be fined $2,000. And she says judges are willing to impose significant sentences if someone reoffends or uses a weapon to threaten the victim during the crime.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that nearly half of Maine's reported hate crimes are against people of color or immigrants. Pezzella says the psychological and physical injuries to victims of hate crimes can be extensive and erode a marginalized community's sense of inclusion.

Zoe Sahloul, executive director of the New England Arab American Organization, says standing up to help someone being victimized can defuse a hate incident.

"How can you deescalate the situation? By being there," Sahloul said. "I know a lot of us and others are afraid to get involved, but if all of us take that responsibility, our hope is for us to create an environment where Maine is a place without hate."

The New England Arab American Organization helpline number is 207-800-5398. Confidential chat in Arabic, Dari, Pashto, and English is available at rc.chat/neaao.