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The Need for Hate Crime Laws
Motivated by a hateful ideology, perpetrators of hate crime seek to terrorize not just an individual, but a victim's entire community. Without a swift response, these crimes can spiral into increased tension, hostility and violence. However, when combined with positive community action, the enforcement of hate crime laws can send a powerful, countervailing message which reassures victims and shuns perpetrators. The laws do not punish beliefs or speech. They only take effect if a crime was committed. Such laws were upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1993.
Hate Crimes Defined
A hate crime is a crime motivated by the victim's actual or perceived race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin or disability.* Generally, hate crimes are assaults, criminal threats of violence, vandalism or property damage. To determine that a hate crime has occurred, it must first be established that a crime was committed. Hateful speech, no matter how offensive, is generally not a criminal offense. Then, determine if the perpetrators left clues that could indicate that they were motivated to commit the crime because of the victim's background. This might include statements made during the crime or written notes or messages. If a crime was committed based on the target's background, it could potentially be a hate crime.
Hate incidents involve behaviors that, though motivated by bias against a victim's race, religion, ethnic/national origin, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation, are not criminal acts. Examples of hate incidents can include name-calling, epithets or the distribution of hate material in public places. Even though a crime was not committed, police should be interested in documenting these incidents. By documenting bias-motivated speech or behavior, law enforcement can help defuse a potentially dangerous situation.
What To Do If You Suspect a Hate Crime Has Occurred
If a potential hate crime is in progress, call 911. Otherwise, call the non-emergency number for your local police department and tell them you want to report a possible hate crime. Save any evidence that may help in the investigation. Give a good description of the suspect.
Your local police should function as the first-responder to hate crime. Police departments have varied understanding of and commitment to countering hate crime. If you are not getting an adequate response, you might consider asking for assistance from your local human relations commission or a community or civil rights group which interacts with the police. In addition, your State Attorneys General office and the FBI are charged with the investigation of hate crime at the State and Federal levels, respectively.
Coming in September: A booklet for communities, jointly produced by U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and Not In Our Town, detailing how communities and law enforcement can work together to report and prevent hate crimes.
Local Lessons on NIOT.org
- Not In Our Town as a Tool for Law Enforcement by Paul Sheridan, Deputy Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the West Virginia Attorney General's Office
- A Crime by Any Other Name by Not In Our Town leader Jim Hennigan
- A Guide to Responding to Hate Groups by Reiko Callner and Anna Schlecht, coordinators of Olympia, Washington’s Unity in the Community
- Prosecuting Hate: Q & A with Oscar Garcia, San Diego Deputy District Attorney, Hate Crimes Unit
- Light in the Darkness Legal Actions page, which includes extended interviews with Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota and prosecutor Megan O'Donnell.