by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The first-ever Seattle Police Department Seattle hate crimes conference, Understanding, Investigating and Responding to Hate Crimes, held at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (WSCJTC) in Burien, April 27-28, brought together some of the nation's most knowledgeable prosecutors, judges and other representatives from the Washington state judicial system and police officers from in and outside the State of Washington.
According to SPD LGBTQ Community Liaison Officer Jim Ritter, who organized the conference, 'This training is designed to educate members of the criminal justice community as to the current state of hate crimes within the Pacific Northwest and nation and how to properly identify, legislate, investigate and prosecute hate crimes.'
Ritter said the training would also 'give instruction on collaborating with the communities impacted by these incidents and to assist repairing the societal damage caused by these acts.'
Ritter is the mastermind behind the SPD Safe Place program, a public education and visibility program aimed at preventing and responding to anti-LGBTQ bias crimes. The program is widely successful with thousands of businesses participating and, just last week, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, along with Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole and Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland, announced that SPD Safe Place will expand to all 98 Seattle Public Schools. Ritter put together the conference because Seattle's LGBTQ community saw a rise in anti-LGBTQ bias, or hate crimes, last year, and there have already been several attacks this year. In fact, Seattle's LGBTQ community remains one of worst in the nation when it comes to anti-LGBTQ attacks. In 2015, there were more than 40 crimes and incidents reported to the Seattle Police Department where the victim reported being attacked because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The previous year, in 2014, the number was only 28.
Due to the sensitive nature of the material presented at these hate crimes study events, attendance at the conference was not open to the public and was restricted to law enforcement officers (federal, state, local, tribal and out-of-state) and other criminal justice employees (judges, prosecutors, corrections, etc.) only. However, Ritter relaxed the rules so that select community leaders that work with SPD could attend the event as well. Photography and recording was not authorized.
Over the two-day conference attendees received an abundance of information.
Seattle Police Deputy Chief Carmen Best welcomed attendees to the conference and Seattle. More than 300 people filled the main auditorium inside the Cascade Center on the WSCJTC campus. Immediately following, Jasper County, Texas Sheriff Billy Rowles (Ret.) and Jasper County, Texas Prosecutor Guy James Gray (Ret.) addressed the conference about the James Byrd, Jr. murder. In a segment called, The Crime, The Investigation & Lessons Learned, Rowles and Gray spoke about their position at the time of the murder, the incident, the culture within that community regarding race relations, the prosecutorial challenges, public sentiment, political concerns, investigative challenges, and more.
On June 7, 1998, James Byrd, Jr., an African-American, accepted a ride from three white men, who beat him, chained him to the back of a truck and dragged him to his death in Jasper, Texas. His brutal murder made national headlines, with two of the assailants drawing the death penalty. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law.
Next attendees heard from the Anti-Defamation League's Hilary Bernstein, in a segment called Wired to See Differences: Reacting to Prejudice and Why Hate Crimes Laws Matter. Bernstein, a senior analyst at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, spoke about the history of the ADL's effort to introduce hate crimes laws on a national level. In addition, she discussed what some other countries, such as Israel, are doing regarding hate crimes laws.
Lastly, Bernstein addressed the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. She discussed the types of groups the ADL tracks and why, as well as the types of people drawn to these groups and the challenges the ADL has in tracking the groups and their activities. Bernstein offered her opinions on how the criminal justice system can better prepare in dealing with the various hate groups throughout the U.S. and beyond our borders.
In the segment How Hate Groups Foster Fear, guest speaker, Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project Director-Southern Poverty Law Center spoke, in detail, about how hate groups such as the KKK, ISIS, White Supremacy, Anarchists and others, thrive on public fear. Dually as important, attendees discussed cyber-hate and social media and how it's speed, strength, and agility is a rising threat to peace.
U.S. Attorney, Western District of Washington, Annette Hayes and Sue Rahr, Executive Director, WSCJTC, welcomed attendees to the second and final day of the first ever SPD Hate Crimes Conference.
The first presentation of the day was delivered by Albany County, Wyoming Sheriff, David O'Malley. The Albany County Sheriff's Office is comprised of 39 sworn law enforcement officers and 6 civilian support personnel serving a county that encompasses approximately 4500 square miles that includes the City of Laramie, where Matthew Shepard suffered one of the most brutal and publicized hate crimes in U.S. history.
Shepard, 21, died in October 1998, four days after he had been found tied to a fence in a rural area near Laramie, where two men beat him and left him to die. The anti-Gay hate crime led to calls for reform and was a major factor in the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
O'Malley, who investigated the crime, said that before the Shepard case he was homophobic. But in working the case and working with people within the Gay community he changed that attitude. He is now an outspoken advocate on civil rights.
O'Malley shared his roughly two and a half hours of presentation time with Shepard's parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, who spoke about the impact hate crimes have on the family of the victim and the community they are a part of.
Dennis and Judy Shepard spoke about how they became co-founders of the Matthew Shepard Foundation (www.matthewshepard.org) and advocates for LGBT rights. The Shepard's have been advocates for parental support of LGBT children, very publicly, since Matthew's death.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation is an online resource whose mission is to erase hate by replacing it with understanding, compassion and acceptance. Through local, regional and national outreach, the Matthew Shepard Foundation empowers individuals to find their voice to create change and challenge communities to identify and address hate that lives within their schools, neighborhoods and homes.
Since its formation, the Foundation has centered its efforts on providing a voice and support for LGBT youth with our online resource center Matthew's Place, helped pioneer the country's first federal hate crimes legislation with the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and create dialogue about hate and acceptance within communities with special support for Tectonic Theater Project's The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.
Returning guest speaker, Hilary Bernstein, from the Anti-Defamation League was joined by Equal Rights Washington's Monisha Harrell to talk about the importance and challenges of proposing and enacting hate crimes legislation.
It took a lot of work to get Congress to pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The Act of Congress was signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 28, 2009, as a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010 (H.R. 2647). The measure expands the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Supporters of the expansion of hate crime laws argued that hate crimes are worse than regular crimes without a prejudiced motivation from a psychological perspective. The time it takes to mentally recover from a hate crime is almost twice as long as it is for a regular crime and LGBTQ people often feel as if they are being punished for their sexuality, which leads to higher incidence of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Prosecuting a crime under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act makes it a federal offense and carries with it a stronger punishment.
To put it into perspective, attendees were reminded that, in reference to Matthew Shepard's murder, Wyoming hate crime laws at the time did not recognize LGBTQ as a suspect class, whereas Texas, when James Byrd, Jr. was murdered, had no hate crime laws at all.
Next, King County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mike Hogan addressed the tools for effective investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. Assisting Hogan, Bruce Miyake, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Western District of Washington and Agent Frank Montoya, FBI Special-Agent-in-Charge (Seattle) spoke about national trends and what does or does not constitute malicious harassment.
In Seattle, according to SPD, malicious harassment laws deal primarily with behaviors which have already been designated as crimes in other laws. Malicious harassment is the reason the suspect targeted that particular person based on their belief about the victims' race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, mental, physical, or sensory handicap, homelessness, marital status, age, parental status, gender or political ideology. Also, according to SPD, is still considered malicious harassment even if the suspect is mistaken about the victim's status, but selected them because of the suspect's belief about the victim's status.
However, it is not malicious harassment, says SPD, if the suspect in the process of committing another crime, calls the victim a derogatory name (such as Faggot) or if the suspect uses insulting or derogatory words but does not place another person in a reasonable fear of harm to their person or property.
Either way, SPD recommends that you report all details of an attack, whether you believe it is malicious harassment or not, to the reporting officer so an investigator can help determine if a hate crime was committed.
Next, Officer Jim Ritter educated attendees about the SPD Safe Place program. The program, said Ritter, is designed to further enhance the relationship between the Seattle Police Department (SPD), the LGBTQ community and local businesses by providing SPD SAFE PLACE decals and signage to local businesses and organizations and encouraging those entities to clearly post them at the entrances to their premise as a symbol of safety for the victims of LGBTQ crime and a warning to those who commit those crimes. SPD SAFE PLACE also provides an instant and easy link to SPD and other LGBTQ resources at www.seattle.gov/spd-safe-place.
In addition, Ritter says that SPD recognizes Intersectionality, meaning that social categories such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, mental, physical, or sensory handicap, homelessness, marital status, age, parental status, gender, class or political ideology and the associated discrimination and disadvantage that may occur to an individual and/or group is all interconnected and must be addressed collectively instead of separately.
In other words, the SPD Safe Place decals are recognizable by the LGBTQ Rainbow Pride colors, but the program is for all victims - LGBTQ and Allied. Members of the LGBTQ community belong to every ethnic, racial, religious, etc. groups that exist. The SPD Safe Place program is all-inclusive.
Following Ritter, Conciliation Specialist with the Department of Justice, Knight Sor, spoke to attendees about the DOJ's involvement in combating hate groups. The Community Relations Service (CRS) is an agency created within the U.S. Department of Justice by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the time of its inception, CRS worked with Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders to address tensions arising from differences of race, color and national origin. CRS continues that work today, and pursuant to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, supports local efforts to prevent and respond to violent hate crimes committed on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or disability.
I spoke at the conference representing the Seattle Gay News and my organization, Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea). I reminded attendees that the LGBTQ community is a close knit community and that pushing information by way of press release or editorial content to LGBTQ newspapers and blogs is a great way to reach the community directly whenever information about public safety or crime trends data is released. Yes, like any community, we get information from other media sources, such as mainstream network and cable news, entertainment blogs, etc., but the fact still remains that LGBTQ media is a direct line to the community.
Through SOSea (www.socialoutreachseattle.com), as President and Founder, I oversee the once monthly self-defense classes that are open to all ages and experience levels, sexual orientations and gender expressions or gender non-conforming members of the community. Additionally, SOSea ran the Neighborhood Safety Shuttle, in response to the uptick in anti-LGBTQ attacks and muggings that took place in 2015. In June, SOSea will produce a safety guide, which will be available in print and online outlining important information about calling 911, what happens to a police report once it reaches the precinct, how a case is assigned a detective, and more. I also serve as the chair of the LGBTQ Advisory Council to SPD and was able to share knowledge I've gained from working closely with SPD to help victims of anti-LGBTQ attacks seek justice.
Ending the two-day conference, Allen Mosely from Amor Spiritual Center, whose Beacon Hill church was vandalized with a four-foot by four-foot swastika and hate language last October, talked about gaining strength through intelligent and productive community solutions and governmental collaboration.
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