Skinheads and other hate crime groups terrorize the innocent while instilling fear into communities across the nation. According to the Southern Law Poverty Center's (SPLC's) Intelligence Project, a non-profit organization that tracks the American radical right, "The racist skinheads' trademark style - shaved head, combat boots, bomber jacket, neo-Nazi and white power tattoos - has become a fixture in American culture."
It's evident that skinheads and hate groups are becoming more prevalent each year. According to the FBI 2005 Hate Crime Statistics, 54.7 percent of the 7,160 single-bias incidents were triggered by a religious bias and 13.2 percent were motivated by an ethnicity/national origin bias.
In 2006, the SPLC specifically tracked more than 844 cases which included groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazi, Black Separatist, Neo-Confederate, Racist Skinhead and Christian Identity. Skinheads can be involved with groups such as these.
"From a law enforcement and safety standpoint, these are people who are on the most violent edge of the extreme right, people whose culture is a violent culture," says Joseph Roy of the SPLC. Roy says the extreme anti-political and anti-law enforcement opinions and culturally violent beliefs of the skinheads are a dangerous mix.
"From those two aspects they're a threat to law enforcement," Roy says. He believes it is inevitable for law enforcement to encounter these groups within their communities. In fact, he says it is more likely for police to encounter skinheads than they are any other terrorist group. Knowledge and education about the ways skinheads and other hate groups operate is imperative.
"It's important for law enforcement to at least have an idea what's going on out there domestically," Roy says.
In May, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1592: Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (LLEHCPA) of 2007 to provide federal assistance to state and local jurisdictions, as well as Indian tribes, to prosecute hate crimes.
This act defines "hate crime" as any violent act causing death or bodily injury because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability of the victim.
LLEHCPA will allow local law enforcement the additional resources they need to investigate and prosecute those who commit serious hate crimes.
According to documentation from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), law enforcement has an ongoing role with hate crime victims and the community. The IACP says that officers and their departments can support hate crime victims and members of the community in the following ways:
- Provide victim(s) a point of contact in the department to whom they can direct questions or concerns.
- Inform them on case progress including the end result of the investigation and/or prosecution.
- Help to connect them with appropriate support services, victim advocates and community-based organizations when needed.
- Protect the privacy of the victim and their families as possible.
- Engage the media as partners in restoring victimized communities through sensitive and accurate reporting.
- Support or coordinate community clean-up efforts.
- Participate in meetings or other forums designed to address the community-wide impact of hate incidents or crimes.
- Collaborate with community leaders to mobilize resources that can be used to assist victims and prevent future hate crimes.
An undercover 'Skin'
Someone who knows the dangers and realities of hate crimes is Det. Matt Browning of the Mesa (Arizona) Police Department. Browning has worked on hate crimes for 12 of his 16 years with the department.
He says even though first responders treat hate crime investigations like any other, there are clues investigators can use to determine if skinheads or other hate crime groups are involved. For instance, tattoos are often very indicative of the type of group who committed the crime.
When it comes to crimes, Browning says most skinheads do not use guns as their weapon of choice. "I've investigated one or two skinhead crimes where a gun was used, but they're usually using knives, bats or boots."
Knowing about the characteristics of the skinheads also can help investigators understand who the suspects might be.
"When you roll up and see a guy laying on the ground with his head three times what it should be, and there aren't any bullets or casings, you probably have what is called a 'boot party,' " Browning says.
A boot party is when a victim is beaten to the ground as a group of skinheads repeatedly kick him with steel-toed boots.
According to Browning, patrol officers are on the front lines of these kinds of crime investigations. Knowing what to expect and understanding the skinheads' mindset is important for first responders.
The skinhead mindset, according to Browning, is completely different from the mindset of a typical gangster. "It's not about drugs and money. It's about race and politics; it's about religion," he says.
Undercover investigations of skinheads or any hate crime groups can be a gamble. Browning says when he began his detective career, he was "lucky," because his investigations took place during a time when skinhead groups in Mesa were on the rise. Browning was basically an "unknown" in the skinhead community.
"The trust and relationship was built at a very early stage of my undercover career," he says. "Because of the trust, I was able to do a lot of different things and was successful at getting into a lot of different groups."
"You're never fully 100-percent covered," Browning says, noting the importance of being careful and keeping stories straight. "These guys are all nationally and internationally linked, so if you're undercover in Arizona, you're going to be hooking up with guys from all over the world.
"If you get burned in Arizona, you're going to get burned in Florida."
Here to stay
Browning says every police department needs to have a hate crime investigation unit in place. He also suggests departments have reliable sources of intelligence within their hate crimes unit. "The only advice I can give to agencies is to get your people going on it," he says. "Start studying up, start finding out who's in your area and what they're doing, and start gathering intelligence."
Although skinheads are most recognizable, "It's not just a 'skinhead thing,' " Browning notes. "When you talk hate crimes, the Black Panthers are another hate organization who want the same things the skinheads do - they want to be separatists. They're not any different."
"If people think these guys are going to go away, they're wrong," Browning says.
With the Internet, more information is easily accessible. Various hate group leaders conduct elaborate background checks, polygraph tests and employment history checks to make sure new skinhead recruits are legitimate, says Browning. This makes infiltrating a group that much more difficult.
"They're doing a lot of different checks," he says. "If you're undercover and not properly backstopped, there's really no point; you can't go on anymore."
Browning says what concerns him most about hate crimes is that no one knows when it will happen, making it very difficult to predict.
"The victims can be anybody. You don't have to be black or Jewish or Israeli," he explains. "It could be a white person who happens to be shorter than average or it could be someone with a limp."
"Anybody who isn't a benefit to the white race is a potential victim," Browning says. Interracial couples are often involved in hate crimes, but surprisingly, the attack might not be on the person of color.
"If you're a white female with a black or Mexican guy, the female is going to get beat down before the guy does," Browning says. "And if he's still around, he'll get his beating after they get done with her."
Conquering hate with knowledge
Skinhead or other hate crime groups may go through changes in leadership or move to a new location, but as long as these groups exist, hate crimes will continue.
Browning says that for skinheads, every day is a hate-filled battle. "They wake up in the morning hating people and go to bed at night hating people," he says.
He says the skinheads' aggression and rage builds up every day until they eventually snap. He compares it to the pent-up frustration of an active shooter.
"I've seen different crimes where this kind of thing happens. You get a guy who is frustrated more and more and he goes on a shooting spree," he says, noting it's similar with the skinheads' hatred and anger toward anyone who is non-white. "They just lose it."
As for law enforcement, being vigilant and educated about the behaviors, patterns and migration of hate groups is imperative.
Roy says the SPLC offers training free of charge to members of law enforcement.
"We train law enforcement about these organizations, and teach Internet tracking with conferences and seminars all over the country," Roy says. There are varying levels of training, including a general 3- to 4-hour lecture series with an overview of the national groups. Small, computer-based classes are also offered.
The biggest challenge for law enforcement investigating hate crimes is identifying hate groups, where they are invading communities and how they are victimizing the innocent.
We may never know why skinheads choose to terrorize with hatred and violence, but knowing what to expect and how to possibly prevent a hate crime from occurring may be the strongest weapon yet.
"They're not going to go away, they're here to stay, Browning says. "It's just a matter of staying on top of them now."
Racist Skinhead glossary
Skinheads use terms like the ones listed below to communicate within their social circles. Knowing these terms can be important for law enforcement to understand when investigating potential hate crimes.
14/88: Common white supremacist code. 14 stands for the "14 words" slogan coined by David Lane, who is serving a 190-year sentence for his part in the assassination of a Jewish talk show host. 88 means "Heil Hitler" as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet.
28: Shorthand for Blood and Honour, a skinhead group.
38: Confederate Hammerskins, the southern faction of Hammerskin Nation. Boot party: Beating a victim to the ground then stomping and kicking him with steel-toed boots.
Crew: Skinhead gang or faction.
Colors: Marks identifying affiliation - can be tattoos, patches on jackets, etc.
Curbing, curb job: Breaking a victim's jaw or neck by forcing his face against a street curb and kicking the back of the victim's head.
Dr. Martens (Doc Martens): Brand of durable boots popular with skinheads as well as young people in all walks of life, though skins lace the boots differently ("straight-laced") and wear either red or white laces.
Homey sock: Pool ball in a sock wrapped in tape so it doesn't split open when used as a weapon.
Featherwood: Female skinhead.
Five words: "I have nothing to say." Skinheads are exhorted to give this standard response to any and all media and law enforcement inquiries.
Fresh cut: A newly indoctrinated skinhead whose head has recently been shaved for the first time.
Hammerskins: A nationwide skinhead syndicate, also known as Hammerskin Nation, with regional factions and chapters that once dominated skin subculture nationwide.
HSN: Hammerskin Nation
HHFH: "Hammerskin Forever Forever Hammerskin."
Hang-around: A young person who associates with skinheads but is not yet a probate, akin to a gang "wannabe."
Probate: A "member in waiting" who is on probation for a set amount of time before he becomes a full-fledged member of a skinhead crew.
RAHOWA: Short for "Racial Holy War," a slogan that originally came out of the neo-Nazi Church of the Creator; also the name of a defunct band.
Red laces: Bootlace color indicating the wearer has shed blood for the skinhead movement. Racist skinheads will often randomly attack non-whites to "earn" their red laces.
Spider web tattoo: Racist skinhead "badge of honor," often worn on the elbow, indicating wearer has committed murder for the skinhead movement.
SHARP: Short for Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, commonly known as SHARP skins, who often battle racist skins.
Skinbyrd: Female skinhead.
Straight-laced: A complex boot-lacing system favored by racist skins who lace their boots in horizontal, straight lines rather than X or cross patterns.
White laces: Bootlace color identifying a skinhead as being "white power," as opposed to a non-racist ("traditional") or anti-racist skin.
- Southern Poverty Law Center