May 1st, 2007 04:29 EST
Cross Burnings in the 21st Century
He called it a "house warming."
A Florida man doused a six-foot tall makeshift cross in his yard with flammable liquid and set it on fire. Then, he told a 15-year-old African American whose family was looking at a house for sale next door, "I don't want to see you around here again, boy."
Cross burnings…today? Yes, they still happen. Twenty have been reported nationwide since October 2005, says Special Agent Carlton L. Peeples, acting Chief of the Civil Rights Unit at FBI Headquarters.
"They aren't that common compared to overall crime in this country, but when they do take place, they have a huge impact—not just on the victim but on the entire community," Peeples says. "They are a poisonous kind of hatred and can increase racial tension that may already exist in the area."
Today, we're actively investigating six such cases, including one in California where a cross was set on fire outside the rectory of a Catholic priest from Rwanda.
When and how do we get involved when a cross burning or similar hate crime is reported? "We can get involved in a variety of ways: because of credible victim and witness complaints or media reports or through referrals from the Department of Justice or Congress. We learn about most incidents through our partnerships with state and local authorities, who are often the first responders," Peeples points out. "Because the FBI doesn't have sole responsibility for hate crime investigations, these cases can be worked jointly or concurrently. Or we may follow the state or local investigation to make sure the federal interest has been served."
Cross burnings are often hard to investigate because they generally take place at night, in rural areas, where witnesses are scarce and the bonds between conspirators are strong, especially if they are part of an organized hate group.
What do we bring to the table? Two things primarily.
First, our full suite of investigative and intelligence capabilities. For example:
We can use our intelligence to provide a broader understanding of any involved organized hate groups; we may also have or be able to develop informants or other sources of information in these groups or in the area.
We can run undercover or surveillance operations and send in our evidence response teams
to help secure and map crime scenes.
Using our network of national and even international offices, we can help run down leads that cross jurisdictional boundaries.
Second, the full force of federal civil rights statutes when warranted. In some cases, for example, states may not even have hate crime laws on the books.
As for Neal Chapman Coombs, the man who lit the cross in northern Florida? Following our joint investigation with local authorities, he pled guilty to violating the civil rights of the black family that wanted to buy the home next door. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison in January.