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Hate crime conference in Tacoma dispels confusion amid rising rate of incidents

Nov. 16, 2022 Updated Wed., Nov. 16, 2022 at 4:40 p.m.

By Craig Sailor The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

Identifying hate crimes can be fraught with confusion, even for those tasked with enforcing and prosecuting the federal and state laws that surround them. But speakers at a conference Tuesday at the University of Washington Tacoma shared a common theme.

Report, report and report.

“One thing that we know about hate crimes is that they go way, way, way under reported,” said Victoria Cantore with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “That is the largest reason why we are here today.”

U.S. Attorney Nick Brown organized the United Against Hate: Identifying, Reporting and Preventing Hate Crimes conference with a focus on the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community.

The conference is a new nationwide initiative from the Department of Justice to combat unlawful hate crimes and incidents. Brown’s western Washington district is among the first 16 districts chosen for the roll out. Eventually, all 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices will host their own conferences.

The goal is to build better relationships between citizens and law enforcement at every level, Brown said. The result, the Justice Department hopes, will be a better community understanding of how hate crimes play into the overall justice system and more accurate and timely reporting of them.

Each district chose its own methods to shape, focus and locate their programs, Brown said. He chose a focus on LGBTQ hate crimes for Tuesday’s conference. Future programs in the series will focus on other groups impacted by hate crimes.

“There’s been a real increase in hate based incidences targeting folks across the district in the LGBT community,” Brown said.

A panel of speakers represented the Justice Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Increasing hate crimes

The Pacific Northwest has a disproportionate number of hate crimes across several categories, Brown said.

“We’ve seen a rise in faith-based incidences of attacks on churches or houses of worship,” he said. “We’ve seen certainly a rise of race-based hate crimes across the country, but that is very true in this district.”

Brown said his office has successfully prosecuted several hate crimes, including a man who set fire to a Seattle gay bar as well as the conviction of former Tacoma tattoo artist Jason DeSimas, who assaulted a Lynnwood disc jockey in 2018 because the DJ was Black.

The Justice Department has seen an increasing amount of hate directed to LGBTQ people, particularly at Pride events. A Pride celebration in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, was almost disrupted by white extremists in June.

“I think a lot of people in the general public just don’t get the severity of the problem that we’re facing as a district, but really, as a country,” Brown said.

The importance of reporting

Whether it’s a hate crime, a hate incident or just discrimination, it’s important to report them to law enforcement, speakers said.

“Even if it doesn’t rise to hate crime that we can prosecute, it is still very useful to law enforcement,” said Yessenia Manzo with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. “It can help identify patterns in the community. It can help identify individual suspects.”

Whether it’s a hate crime or a lesser hate incident, Ryan Bruett, a special agent with the FBI in Seattle, urged the public to report it to his agency and other law enforcement.

“It’s confusing, even to people that work in this field, about whether something is a hate incident or a hate crime,” he said. “When does it cross that line? And sometimes it’s a gray line. So we don’t expect the good citizenry to make those distinctions.”

Bruett knows victims are often reluctant to report hate incidents to law enforcement. He sometimes learns about hate crimes only from reading about them in the newspaper.

He urged victims of and witnesses to hate crimes to write down details of the incident as soon as possible.

“And exactly what was said and how many times it was said,” Bruett said. “It’s critically important to proving that that’s why this crime occurred — it was bias motivated.”

Community trauma

A hate crime might be perpetrated against an individual or small group, but it can reverberate within the community it targets, Brown said.

“It really only takes a few different incidences to terrorize the community,” he said.

“They also matter because people who commit hate crimes often intend to frighten all members of the community who share a targeted trait, and they can come with a chilling message,” said Susan Kas with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

People who commit hate crimes are frequently repeat offenders, Kas said.

Defining hate

Washington state defines hate crimes as an attempt to injure someone, damage property or threaten a person or group placing them in reasonable fear because of the perpetrator’s perception of the victim’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity or disability.

A hate crime isn’t necessarily defined by the victim. Kas told of a recent crime in which a man used his vehicle to threaten two women he perceived as a lesbian couple. They were actually a mother walking with her daughter.

Prosecutors do not need to prove that a defendant hates an entire group of a protected class (race, religion, sexual orientation), Kas said. They only need to prove that the crime was committed because the defendant perceived the victims to be in that class.

A hate incident is not the same as a hate crime, the speakers said.

If a person or group makes anti-LGBTQ comments at a Pride event, for example, it’s a hate incident. But if that same group were to then physically attack or threaten the Pride event attendees, the incident would rise to the level of a hate crime.

Although hate crime laws and protections have increased in recent years, the earliest legislation dates to the 1870s. It targeted the KKK following the Civil War.

Freedom of speech

The Justice Department takes a neutral stance on freedom of expression, Brown said. Someone might say things another person doesn’t want to hear, but they still have the right to say it.

Bruett said his office will frequently get complaints about someone making hateful comments.

“These comments are often racist and disgusting, but they’re often not illegal,” Bruett said. “Under the First Amendment, people have the right to express themselves, even if their message is one of hate.”

But a line is crossed when someone expresses the desire to commit violence or urges others to do so.

What a defendant said during the commission of the crime is key to prosecution, Manzo said

“So, if they use a racial or derogatory term, a jury really puts value on whether they said it one time, or whether they said it 10 times,” Manzo said.

Prevention

A subset of the Justice Department helps mediate conflict and tensions between groups.

The Community Relations Services agency builds relationships between groups that are usually at odds with each other, said its chief peacemaker Knight Sor.

“I always advertise my agency as the friendly face of the Department of Justice, because you would want to work with us. We do preventive work,” he said.

His group does not advocate, prosecute or investigate, Sor said.

“We are peacemakers,” he said. “We’re neutral and impartial. And our work is always confidential. The work that we do is not only to connect people, but also connect people to resources.”

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