Police trained on handling hate crimes

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BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Police Department hosted the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on Thursday to help local investigators understand their responsibilities when it comes to investigating hate crimes.

"We're not experts on this," Chief Michael "Gunny" Fitzgerald said. "It's important for us to be on point because we are seeing an increase in a lot of hate activity, not just here in Brattleboro, but nationwide."

"There is often resistance to the basic premise that hate crimes laws are necessary," states a handout given at the beginning of the meeting. "The view is often expressed that there are already criminal statutes on the books to cover the criminal conduct, so it is redundant, wasteful and unwise to charge crimes that require additional proof of intent. Sometimes we hear that 'hate crimes are an exercise in political correctness,' or that such a prosecution is unnecessary as 'we are already committed to solving and proving criminal

offenses.'"

Laws specific to hate crimes were first introduced in 1968, when Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law, the first federal hate crimes statute. That law made it a crime to attack or threaten someone based on their skin color, religion or national origin.

Over the years, the law was expanded to cover disability or sexual orientation and in 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, making it a federal crime "to willfully cause bodily injury, or attempt to do so using a dangerous weapon, because of the victim's actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin," according to the U.S. Department of Justice. "The Shepard-Byrd Act is the first statute allowing federal criminal prosecution of hate crimes motivated by the victim's actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity."

Matthew Shepard was a gay student attending the University of Wyoming when he was tortured and left to die near Laramie. James Byrd Jr. was a black man who was murdered by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. Both were killed in 1998.

Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity and a presenter on Thursday, explained why hate crime laws are necessary.

"I have always understood hate crimes as those in which the perpetrator, in addition to the physical crime of assault or murder, is also sending a message to an entire group of people, that is, blacks or gays are not welcomed in this white heteronormative space, don't dare be here or the same will happen to you," said Reed.

"People are not being prosecuted for what they think, per se, but for the enforcement of that thought through violent action."

Cynthia Deitle, the Matthew Shepard Foundation's Programs and Operations director, said protecting the civil right of people to say reprehensible things is just as important as protecting people designated as protected classes under hate crimes legislation.

"We support wholeheartedly the First Amendment," she said. "You should be allowed to say what you want. You just can't threaten somebody. Our system of government protects speech. Unless it becomes a threatening communication, you can speak in very ugly terms and that is absolutely protected."

Deidle spent more than two decades investigating hate crimes for the Department of Justice.

As explained during the training, a statement becomes a threat when there is evidence of implied violence.

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You can hold a baseball bat in the air while yelling a slur at someone, explained Ed Caspar, a former member of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and current member of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. But if you point or shake the bat at someone, you have crossed the line from expressing your opinion into making a threat.

Deidle said it can be a confusing line, and investigators have to prove intent when attempting to prosecute a threat or a crime that might be motivated based on someone's sexual orientation, skin color, religion or national origin.

It's important for police officers to understand that line, said Fitzgerald, so that they can better serve their community.

"When someone comes to us and says they were a victim of a hate crime, we are better informed on all the options that are available and what we can or cannot do," he said.

"The chief is a true advocate for hate crimes training, enforcement and investigation," said Deidle. "He is someone who wants to bridge gaps within the community."

Vermont hate crimes law, like most other states that have one, is considered a "piggyback" law on existing crime statutes, said Albert Moskowitz, one of the presenters and a former chief of the DOJ's Criminal Section, Civil Rights Division.

"If you violate a state law and it is motivated on bias, that bumps the sentence," he said.

In Vermont, a misdemeanor can be "bumped" up to a felony if investigators can prove it was motivated by hate for a protected class. If prosecutors prove a crime is a hate crime, it can double the underlying sentence.

"That's a big deal," said Moskowitz. "But the issue is you have to have evidence to prove the motive. That requires a good deal of investigation and time and effort. You can show it by the words that were used at the time of the crime. You can show it by affiliation with hate groups. You can show it through what they've said to other people, what kind of literature they read, and what kind of music they listen to."

Moskowitz, like Deidle, said a person has a Constitutional right to be offensive, so investigators must be sure they have collected the evidence necessary for a prosecutor to proceed with a hate crimes enhancement.

"One of the main purposes of this course is to explain what the law requires and how do you find that evidence," said Moskowitz. "Without that, you've got nothing."

Deidle said the officers in attendance at the Thursday meeting were very attentive and engaged, which is not always the case.

"Some officers say nothing for eight hours," she said. "Everyone here had something to say or ask."

The training was open to law enforcement agents from around the state, said Fitzgerald, and including the dozen or so from the Brattleboro Police Department, about 40 people took advantage of the training.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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