Sara Butler | Contributing Editor
On Wednesday, Feb. 20, the Hillcrest community gathered for an emergency town hall spurred by hate crimes that have recently occurred in the neighborhood, including a shooting at The Asian Bistro on Feb. 12 and the vandalism of a plaque under the Pride flag on Feb. 6.
In response to these events, San Diego LGBT Visitors Center and SoCal Equality Business Alliance organized the town hall, which took place in The Great Hall at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Bankers Hill from 6-8 p.m. Though announced on late notice, word spread quickly on social media and the meeting drew a packed house.
Moderated by Morgan M. Hurley (former editor of Gay San Diego), the evening featured special guests such as Mayor Kevin Falconer and Councilmember Chris Ward.
San Diego Chief of Police David Nisleit commended Hillcrest for being so active in their neighborhood and its safety, exemplified with the numerous 911 calls and reports made following the incidents.
“That’s why this community is so special, because people are willing to be involved, be engaged, be a part of it,” Nisleit said, adding that his goal as chief of police is to ensure he and his team make the neighborhood feel safe and secure.
“I want to make sure everybody is comfortable walking throughout the community and doing what they want — after all, it’s what we all strive for … that you feel comfortable walking to the local restaurants and local clubs and local businesses … that’s what San Diego is about,” he continued.
Though District Attorney Summer Stephan could not discuss details of the case, she said her office has dedicated a full-time individual to solely address hate crimes. She added that hate crimes have doubled across the state and in San Diego, with LGBTQ+ individuals being the second most likely to be targeted, behind African American males.
“We have trouble like everywhere else, but we don’t respond to trouble in the same way … we bring it home and make sure it is shut down,” Stephan said, adding that the overwhelming public response to the incidents is not commonly seen in other cities.
A question and answer community forum featuring seven panelists followed the guest speakers. Among them were Stonewall Citizens Patrol executive director Sean Redmond; Hillcrest business owner Moe Girton, who also serves on the mayor’s LGBTQ Advisory Council; and Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh.
Mike Thongchau, 26, spoke on behalf of his mother Patty, who owns The Asian Bistro. Thongchau said he feels he grew up in the neighborhood, having worked at his mother’s Hillcrest restaurant, formerly The Golden Dragon, since the ninth grade. He and his family thanked the neighborhood and police officers for all of their support following the Feb. 12 incident.
“We reopened the doors as soon as we could a couple of days ago, and we’re looking forward to serving the community again,” Thongchau said. “We can’t wait to have a fun environment back there … We’re super excited to be back in the community and we’re thankful for everyone’s support.”
San Diego Police Capt. Manny Del Toro said in 2016, there were 34 documented hate crimes in the city of San Diego. This number jumped to 41 in 2017 and 2018. Eleven (2017) and 13 (2018) of these documented were related to sexual orientation, with three occurring in Hillcrest last year.
FBI Special Agent Brett Kalina said this type of hateful behavior is intolerable and promised the crowd that diversity would not negatively influence an individual’s protection under the law.
“Whether it’s our victim assistance or whether it’s our agents within the FBI, we don’t care if you are nonbinary. If you are black. If you are Muslim. If you are trans. If you are gay. If you are undocumented. If you are a lesbian. We don’t care — you should get the same respect, empathy and professionalism from law enforcement that you would give anybody else,” Kalina said, eliciting applause from the audience.
After the panel discussion, Hurley opened the room up to the audience to ask questions and express concerns.
Luigi, who lives on Fifth Avenue and owns a business down the street, expressed that he feels very unsafe in Hillcrest, and urged more police protection. He requested daily police surveillance to check out the streets and businesses to make sure more hateful or harmful acts do not happen again.
A board member of Hillcrest Business Association (HBA) noted that Luigi’s side of Hillcrest is a part of the Maintenance Assessment District (MAD), which has security provided from the HBA. This includes a car patrol that is out eight to 10 hours a day.
Erik Benson, who works in Hillcrest and is involved with the Hillcrest Town Council, brought up violent homeless attacks happening in the neighborhood. He asked about outreach options with Hillcrest homeless population and how the efforts have been going.
Nisleit said they created a whole new division last March to deal with the homeless issue. He also encouraged residents to report incidents by reaching out to the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) at 619-446-1010.
Benson’s friend Kelsey added that many art installations are planned for Hillcrest in 2019 and asked whether vandalism to these pieces would be considered hate crimes.
Del Toro responded that yes, if there was evidence that the vandalism was even in part motivated by any category of a hate crime, the damage to the art would be classified as such. He also added that if it continues to happen, police will consider long-term solutions like security cameras and more lighting.
Resident Adrian Scott closed the evening with a concern about over-policing black and brown communities that live in Hillcrest who already don’t feel welcome. Del Toro suggested that all races “come join the patrol, come on out and help educate the community, show involvement in the community, and just be one community.”
The public is encouraged to reach out to the San Diego Police Department if they have any questions or concerns, using the nonemergency number 619-531-2000 or the Get It Done App. LGBTQ-related inquires can also be directed to Dan Meyer, LGBT liaison for SDPD, and Christine Garcia, Transgender liaison for SDPD.
[Editor’s note: For more information about the Feb. 12 shooting at The Asian Bistro, read our coverage at bit.ly/hillcrest-shooting.]
—Reach Sara Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org.