Commentary: A better understanding of hate crimes is needed

The Kansas City StarFebruary 25, 2013 


Mary Sanchez is a columnist with the Kansas City Star.


The power of hate crimes to terrorize is relatively simple: They are criminal acts that send a message far beyond the initial victim.

And yet it is that aspect of the laws that people often question. A running dialogue has long asked the need for such statutes, with some arguing that an assault is an assault, a murder is a murder and the normal penalties should suffice upon conviction.

But that misses the rationale behind hate crimes — when a person’s race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation is a motivator for an attack. The crime can be like a warning to an entire category of people.

“It doesn’t just affect the victim,” said Heith Janke, supervisory special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “It affects an entire community. Everyone lives in fear not knowing if they might be the next one attacked.”

A broader understanding of the laws is one goal several government agencies plan to reach through an effort to enhance the investigation of such incidents in this region.

Janke recently transferred from Washington, D.C., to the FBI’s Kansas City field office and will lead civil rights and other enforcement units here.

The cooperative approach is being taken by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service, the Kansas City office of the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Missouri.

A recent meeting invited community leaders to help form a civil rights advisory committee or network.

Organizers are hoping that community stakeholders will be able to increase cooperation with investigations and alert agencies when a crime might have been motivated by a protected category.

One of the most frequent misconceptions is that the victim has to be a minority.

Not true. It’s the use of any race or the other protected categories as a motivating factor that can make an act a hate crime. Any race can be targeted and any race can be the perpetrator.

Another goal is preventing such crimes by heading off tensions before they escalate.

The FBI is also sensitive to the fact that for some people, having a crime considered for prosecution as a hate crime can cause a victim to relive the trauma. A victim might choose to view an assault as a random crime rather than accept that they were targeted specifically for their race, their religion or any of the other categories.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report tallies hate crimes and bias incidents.

But the statistics should be viewed cautiously. Reporting is not universal. Some law enforcement agencies do a thorough job of reporting the statistics, others do not.

Increased understanding of the laws and public cooperation can help there, too.

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