Thursday, March 27, 2003

What hate crime?

Travesty of the day:

No hate-crime charges sought in hit-run death
The man accused of striking down Jerome Steven Lovely will not face hate-crime charges, Bellingham police said Wednesday.

"At this time, we conclude there is no indication that this crime occurred solely because of the victim's race," Police Chief Randy Carroll said in a statement.

Chief Carroll should check his Washington state malicious-harassment law. There's no language in the statute requiring a crime be committed solely because of the victim's race -- other motives can be involved too (and apparently were here). But if race was a significant motive -- and it's clear that it probably was, considering the perp's background and the epithet he used when striking the victim -- then a hate-crime charge is warranted.

Indeed, the only exclusion it mentions: "Evidence of expressions or associations of the accused may not be introduced as substantive evidence at trial unless the evidence specifically relates to the crime charged." And in this case, the expression clearly was related to the crime charged.

However, there is one other problem: Washington's hate-crimes law is so weak that it would naturally be superseded by the murder and hit-and-run charges anyway. If Carroll had offered that as an explanation, it might have been acceptable.

Nonetheless, Carroll's abysmal ignorance about hate crimes is par for the course, not merely in rural Washington but in rural America generally. A Justice Department study completed two years ago uncovered the unpleasant fact that hate-crimes laws are abysmally underenforced, and their violations routinely uninvestigated, in rural districts.

The SPLC had a special report on this awhile back:

Discounting Hate: Ten years after federal officials began compiling national hate crime statistics the numbers don’t add up
Then, in September 2000, a virtually unnoticed academic study funded by the Justice Department found a "major information gap" in hate crime reporting. Based on a survey of 2,657 law enforcement agencies, the study estimated that some 37% of agencies that did not submit reports nevertheless had at least one hate crime. In addition, about 31% of the agencies with reports of zero hate crimes did, in fact, have at least one. The study’s co-authors — the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research at Northeastern University and the Justice Research and Statistics Association in Washington, D.C. — estimated that almost 6,000 law enforcement agencies likely experienced at least one hate crime that went unreported.

The published numbers, in other words, were grossly off.

The problem, according to the SPLC, is a combination of factors: "a lack of training in recognizing hate crimes, the false belief that relatively minor crimes need not be reported to the FBI, and an over-eagerness to write off the bias aspect of criminal incidents, to outright opposition to the very notion of hate crimes."

Police officials like Carroll need to think about the message they're sending out -- not merely to African-Americans and other minorities in their community ("we won't protect you from racist yahoos") but also to minorities from other places, like Seattle or California ("here's what happens to blacks in Bellingham"). Then again, maybe that's what he had in mind. From a distance, it's hard to tell.

FWIW, my next book -- Death on the Fourth of July: Hate Crimes and the American Landscape -- will be focused on precisely this problem, drawing from a similar (though more egregious) case in Ocean Shores two years ago. I'll be working on it from now through this summer, which will mean lighter blogging for awhile.

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