With no new evidence and no suspect, the Westbrook Police Department has closed an investigation into anti-Muslim threats found at an apartment complex in August.

Despite the apparent dead end, however, the police department’s response has quelled some of the fear that rippled through the local Muslim community after the discovery of the typewritten messages that read: “All Muslims are Terrorists should be Killed.”

“They tell all the people in Westbrook Pointe, ‘Don’t worry, you are safe here,’ ” said Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi immigrant who lives in the apartment complex.

The unresolved case fits a national trend, as experts say many hate crimes are not prosecuted and few cases result in a conviction.

In 2015, the FBI reported 5,850 hate crimes across the country. In 257 incidents, the motive was determined to be an anti-Muslim bias. Those numbers are likely low. A 2013 Justice Department study indicated two-thirds of all hate crimes are not reported to police. Data on their prosecution are also limited and nationally inconsistent.

In Maine, local district attorneys handle the criminal prosecution of hate crimes, and the state Attorney General’s Office could not provide data on those cases Friday.

The Maine Civil Rights Act authorizes the attorney general to seek a restraining order against a person who has committed violence, a threat of violence or property damage motivated by bias. In 2015, the state filed six complaints against seven defendants. The FBI recorded 45 hate crimes in Maine that year.

“There are many hate crime cases where police are not able to determine who did something and why they did it,” said Steve Wessler, who started the Civil Rights Unit at the Maine Attorney General’s Office in 1992. “The hardest cases are the ones where it’s really difficult to get evidence. One would be leaving a message by spray-painting it on someone’s house or front door. The same with threats where somebody leaves a note.”

COMMUNITY MEETING EASED FEARS

The Westbrook case began Aug. 17, when an Iraqi resident of Westbrook Pointe reported finding the anti-Muslim message. The words “All Muslims are Terrorists should be Killed” were typewritten on a strip of paper roughly 2 inches high by 8½ inches wide. Officers found another, identical message on the ground in the complex and learned two others were found by Iraqi residents there who did not immediately report them to police.

At the time, Police Chief Janine Roberts said there was no evidence the threat was credible. Still, the department called a community meeting with Muslim residents to answer questions and worked overtime shifts in the neighborhood for three weeks.

“During these three weeks, no further similar incidents were reported or discovered,” Roberts said. “The officers did report proactive contact with a variety of residents, furthering our relationships and problem-solving approaches.”

The state crime lab could not identify fingerprints or DNA on the papers. Interviews with nearby residents did not turn up clues, and no witnesses came forward. The chief, who meets regularly with leaders in the city’s immigrant and Muslim communities, told them in November she had no evidence to proceed.

“At this point, it is closed pending additional information,” Roberts said.

Faysal Kalayf, vice president of the Iraqi Community Association of Maine, said the officers’ presence calmed the residents at Westbrook Pointe.

“They were working almost 24 hours to make sure the Muslims and the Iraqi community were safe,” Kalayf said.

Ali, 51, moved to the United States in 2013 after working with the American military in Iraq. When he heard about the threatening notes found in his apartment complex, he felt afraid for his three children and his wife.

“I think for one week, no one goes out, the children or the women or the big men,” Ali said. “All the people who have to go to work go fast to work in the car and come back.”

Ali attended the meeting where the Westbrook police promised Muslim residents their support. Even though the department has not found the person who left the threats, Ali said many of his neighbors and friends felt reassured after that gathering.

“All the people now feel like they can trust the police,” he said.

HATE CRIMES DIFFICULT TO PROVE

If the police do find the source of the notes, the case will not be clear-cut.

The First Amendment protects the freedom of speech – even hate speech. Conviction for a hate crime requires direct action or targeting.

“There are some who might see it as a hate crime,” said Jack Levin, co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University. “Others may see it as protected speech.”

Identifying the perpetrator can also be challenging.

These crimes are often anonymous – offensive graffiti, a rock thrown through a window, notes like the ones at Westbrook Pointe. Even when the incident involves face-to-face contact, the victim often does not know the other person or people involved.

“A very large percentage of hate crimes are between strangers, so it’s a little different than if you get in a fight with the person next door,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

And in other cases, the offender’s bias is difficult to prove. He or she might be charged with a crime related to violence or damage to property, but not a hate crime.

In California, one of the states that does track these cases to resolution, only 285 of 837 hate crime events in 2015 were referred for prosecution. The state attorney general’s annual report for that year included dispositions for 138 cases – 59 hate crime convictions, 60 convictions for other crimes and 19 cases that resulted in no conviction.

“Even if we get an assailant, most hate crimes that end up getting prosecuted (are) prosecuted under traditional criminal statutes,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism.

To both experts and community members, the Westbrook Police Department acted appropriately.

“The fact that this police department took this very seriously is really important because the message it sends is that the police see this as a serious problem, and there can be serious consequences to it,” Wessler said.

Mahmoud Hassan, president of the Somali Community Center of Maine, said the police department’s response made residents of Westbrook Pointe feel protected. Even though many Muslims and immigrants still worry about harassment in their daily lives, Hassan said they now know they can approach local officers with a problem.

“Criminals do not represent communities,” he said. “We can reach out to (the police) and we have access to reach out to them in case of fear or an occurrence of an incident.”

MESSAGES OF REASSURANCE

Kalayf said he hopes the person who wrote the threatening messages sees the response from the police and the larger community.

“It might be when he sees how much help we received, he will think to himself, ‘Why am I the only one with this hate?’ ” Kalayf said.

Sitting in the office of the Iraqi Community Association, he pointed to six postcards taped to the wall. They arrived in the mail after the threats were found at Westbrook Pointe. Some are signed; others are anonymous.

“You are so welcome here,” one person wrote. “This is your home with all our love.”

“The hateful words of the person who left the notes at apartments do not represent Maine and Maine people,” another note said. “We are so happy you chose to come here, and we want you to live happy, healthy lives in Maine.”

To Kalayf, these notes are the most important.

 

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