Fay Stetz-Waters leads a team of hotline operators with Oregon’s Department of Justice. (Ricardo Nagaoka for The Washington Post)
9 min

PORTLAND, Ore. — The operators of Oregon’s Bias Response Hotline couldn’t keep up with the calls: What could they do about the n-word carved onto a car? The antisemitic fliers littering driveways? A spray-painted swastika?

Morning to night, the phone rang with pleas for help and occasional heckling: You’re a waste of state money. Colleagues joked that Fay Stetz-Waters, one of the first two voices behind the public service, must be immune to stress: She’d joined the Marines as a teenager, worked the graveyard shift as a 911 dispatcher, and served as conservative Linn County’s first Black lesbian judge. But day after day, answering the hotline brought a rush of American dysfunction right to her ear.

“I don’t think I was gray when I started,” said Stetz-Waters, 56, the civil rights and social justice director for the Oregon Department of Justice, running a hand through her cropped hair. “I am now.”

Hate crimes were spiking nationwide in January 2020 when Oregon became one of the first states to launch a hotline for victims of violence, harassment or vandalism rooted in bigotry. Now the approach is gaining momentum across the country as officials grapple with a rise in prejudicial abuse with limited recourse. Operators here have found that most callers aren’t reporting criminal offenses, such as physical attacks on people or property. Rather, they tend to flag words maligning their race, religion or sexual orientation — words that can inflict lasting pain but are often protected under the First Amendment.

Stetz-Waters and her team at the Oregon DOJ say they’re trying to offer support where government agencies lack the power or will to step in. They connect callers to counselors. They teach them how to lodge complaints against schools, companies and law enforcement. They’ve paid to buff the n-word out of a car and cover up a spray-painted swastika. They listen: One woman dialed the hotline to share a racist comment her professor made four decades ago.

More than 1,101 victims and witnesses called the first year, 1,687 in the second and 2,887 in 2022. Operators over that period spent more than 4,499 hours on the phone. The budget grew from $43,000 to $2 million, allowing Stetz-Waters to hire a team of five.

“This was a way to really be able to track what was going on in our state, put victims at the center of this work and find out from them what they need,” she said in her office overlooking downtown Portland, where some storefronts remained boarded up three years after the city’s hundred-plus days of police brutality protests.

Hate crimes in the United States climbed by 11.6 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to the FBI’s latest data, released in March, though experts caution that the numbers probably reflect a significant undercount. The rise coincided with more anti-Asian attacks reported during the pandemic, when President Donald Trump referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” — a label that political violence scholars say encourages xenophobia.

Oregon’s hotline sprouted from brainstorming sessions with the state’s attorney general, Ellen F. Rosenblum, who describes her role as not the “top cop” but a “mama bear protecting her cubs.” Long before George Floyd’s murder sparked months of demonstrations here and protesters tangled with federal agents in the streets, the operators knew many residents, particularly people of color, didn’t trust law enforcement.

It was illegal for Black people to move here until 1926, due to the state’s racist exclusion laws, and though Portland is famously liberal, extremism researchers say Oregon remains disproportionately home to white-supremacist groups.

People told Stetz-Waters that reporting racist harassment to the police had gotten them nowhere or left them feeling worse. Could the state DOJ do any better?

In the early days, she worried the hotline was missing its target audience. People rang to complain about shaky cell service, beefs with neighbors, lights shining into their windows. It reminded her of life as an emergency service dispatcher. She’d had regulars who dialed 911 just to talk.

“It didn’t cost me anything to listen if I was between calls,” she said.

The takeaway from those small-town Connecticut night shifts: Chatting with people is an underrated source of intelligence, Stetz-Waters said. The calls revealed patterns, helping her predict when and where crime might strike.

Her regulars found comfort in being heard. Could Oregonians find comfort in a government hotline?

“That’s a pretty hard sell,” she said.

She took it as an encouraging sign that Black and Asian callers were reporting the most harassment to the hotline, according to the team’s data — vague threats, racial slurs, misguided blame for the pandemic (“Chinese virus”) — because studies show that hate and bias is underreported.

“We’re talking about an iceberg with a massive, massive underwater presence,” said her second-in-command, Johanna Costa, the agency’s bias response coordinator.

Stetz-Waters and Costa, the first two voices of the hotline, have become its public face, driving around the state to explain their mission and spread the number: 1-844-924-BIAS.

One stop brought them to a western Oregon city where someone had scattered fliers bashing Jews. Residents wondered how to address the printed rhetoric, which was chillingly familiar: Similar language had surfaced in the online rants of mass shooters.

At most, the fliers had violated a littering ordinance, but the operators feared they could inspire violence. Stetz-Waters and Costa advised people to avoid spreading them further: Don’t post the fliers on social media. Don’t visit the websites they advertise. Don’t give the creators more attention.

“A crime need not occur for us to recognize the harm is real and significant,” said Costa, 42, who previously worked as an advocate for sexual assault victims.

Once, she found money to move a family away from a neighbor who repeatedly shouted slurs at their children. The operators had a $100,000 budget to tap for cases like that.

The other operators preferred to shield their identities. Hecklers had become regulars, threatening to publish their names and addresses on the internet. Some made vague threats, such as “watch your back” — which was free speech, not criminal intimidation, since they didn’t specify when, where and why the operators should watch their backs.

“Language can be incredibly scary and fall into this gray area under the law,” Costa said during a Zoom meeting last year with a group of activists in the Portland suburb of Lake Oswego. “Things like: Watch your back. You better watch out. You might be next.”

She displayed a hypothetical scenario on a PowerPoint slide: an Instagram page targeting a teen girl called “Maria is a slave who should die.”

“This is not what I think should be the case, but this is a bias incident, and it’s not specific or imminent to constitute a crime under Oregon law,” she said. “I know that can be disappointing, frustrating, scary information.”

The police might not be able to do much, she said. But an operator could coach you through a safety plan or contact social media to get the account removed.

“It’s a lot of information to take in,” said Willie Poinsette, the co-founder of the group, Respond to Racism, after Costa wrapped her presentation. “A lot to think about.”

Poinsette, 76, had invited Costa and Stetz-Waters to speak at one of Respond to Racism’s monthly meetings after reading on Facebook about the hotline. She’d been organizing chats on fighting bigotry since 2017, after a Black police detective blogged about a man calling him the n-word in a fit of road rage in Lake Oswego.

The episode had stirred painful memories for Poinsette, who grew up in South Carolina during the Jim Crow era. Back then, she wasn’t allowed to attend school with White children. Now strangers yelled slurs at her through their car windows.

“It is uneasy for me as Black woman here,” she said. “Will they try to hit me? Or are they just being jerks? Will these people come back and try to hurt me?”

Lately, Black Lives Matters lawn signs in Lake Oswego were getting stolen or destroyed. She’d encouraged people to report that to the hotline, but not everyone was comfortable interacting with the authorities. The justice system had its own history of hate and bias.

Poinsette knew of only one Respond to Racism member who’d called 1-844-924-BIAS.

Lisa Halcom, 41, the owner of Happyrock Coffee Roasting Co. in nearby Gladstone, was hosting a drag queen bingo night last August when a group of men showed up, some in camouflage gear with black face coverings, shouting gay slurs and accusing the performers of “grooming” children.

They surrounded the building, video shows, heckling whoever tried to get inside.

“They were getting in people’s faces. People were scared for their lives,” Halcom said. “We didn’t know if they were armed.”

After her lone security guard called the police, she said, the officers seemed to be chatting and laughing with the men shouting at the drag queens and patrons. One threatened to arrest a bingo player, she said.

“The police were openly hostile to us,” Halcom said.

In the first police log of the event, published on the city’s website, officers wrote that “both sides were engaged in verbal jabs at each other.”

A second report, published the day after an Oregonian article shared Halcom’s side, officers wrote they had been “contacted by a witness who reported hearing at least one (1) slur… The slur targeted a sexual orientation, which constitutes a ‘bias incident.’”

Then they advised anyone who considered themselves to be a “victim of the bias incident” to call 1-844-924-BIAS.

So Halcom did.

The operator guided her through filing complaints against the Gladstone Police Department to the state. She hadn’t known she could do that.

“It kind of feels like … at least I have a little bit of power,” she said.

Maybe the complaints will prompt an investigation. Maybe the officers will get in trouble. Maybe they’ll have to undergo some kind of special training.

Maybe her effort will matter. Maybe it won’t.