Updated: Mar 23
A man calls a mosque just days before the start of Ramadan leaving a message that says, “I planted a bomb and I am going to blow your Temple to bits.” Another person purchases a baby doll at a local discount store, takes a rope, and proceeds to tie a noose around the doll’s neck. Later, on three occasions, he hangs the doll directly in front of the only staircase an African-American family with a young child uses to access their apartment.
During a full capacity training, held at the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence on September 25, over 90 law enforcement professionals representing the majority of communities in RI were asked if the two situations above, and several other scenarios, were federal and/or state hate crimes.
The all-day event was sponsored by the RI Commission on Prejudice and Bias (RICPB) in conjunction with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and had support from the Massachusetts Police Training Program.
The program was a response to the significant increase in hate incidents and crimes in RI and around the country. According to FBI reports there were 11 hate crimes reported in RI in 2017. Another concern was that the state is now home to three active hate groups.
The goals of the training were to:
· Develop a greater understanding of the need for effective and prompt hate crime enforcement,
· Strengthen trust between law enforcement and diverse communities,
· Increase proficiency in recognizing and identifying bias indicators when responding to a potential hate crime,
· Enhance the skills necessary to engage with a victim in a sensitive and respectful manner,
· Enhance the ability to determine what facts are necessary to substantiate the criminal charge and the bias motivation,
· Explore how prosecutors and police can work together effectively to obtain a conviction, and
· Increase accuracy of reports.
The event began with Cynthia M. Deitle, programs and operations director for the Matthew Shepard Foundation and a former FBI agent, asking each attendee how many years they had served, and how much training they received in the area of hate crimes. The vast majority, with the exception of campus security officers, had only one day of training or less at the municipal police academy, even though most had served multiple years on the force.
Asked why there should be hate crime laws, all the responses related to providing better service and security to the community. Hate crimes affect not only the person, but also the whole community, as they have a fast ripple effect. Examples included the increase in hate crimes and incidents after the Pulse nightclub shooting and the Pittsburgh synagogue killings.
One attendee said such crimes make people within that community or group feel frightened, even if they live nowhere near where the incident occurred. Most members of the law enforcement community said they have never investigated a hate-related incident, as they are frequently not reported.
Amy Romero, Assistant US Attorney, Department of Justice, District of RI; and Special Agent Pepper Daigler, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Division, Providence Resident Agency, presented the six federal laws that apply to hate in our country, including the Shepard/Byrd Hate Crimes Act, Damage to Religious Property statute, and the Obstruction of Free Exercise of Religion.
The Shepard/Byrd Hate Crimes Act, passed in October 2009, is named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd. Both were attacked and left for dead – Shepard due to his sexual orientation, and Byrd for his race. At the time of these attacks, Wyoming, where Shepard was killed, did not recognize gay individuals as a protected class. Texas, where Byrd was murdered, had no hate crime laws at all.
The RI Office of the Attorney General presented the state’s statutes and explained why these laws were put into effect, as well as the importance of officers reporting hate-related incidents to their office, and reaching out if they have a concern or question.
The program closed with a panel discussion that included members of the RICPB. Also in attendance were representatives from The RI Council for Muslim Advancement, The Center for Southeast Asians, the NAACP Providence, RI State Council of Churches, Jewish Alliance of Greater RI, RI Board of Rabbis, Day One, Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and RI Pride.
RICPB Coordinator Dr. Jodi Glass facilitated this segment of the program by saying how important it is that Rhode Islanders take hate incidents seriously. “We are an experiment in pluralism,” said Glass. “Therefore we must lead our country in taking on hate.” She asked panelists: "What is your relationship with law enforcement? Do you feel safe to report a hate crime or bias incident?” Several members of the panel, as well as community leaders expressed concern when interacting with police officers.
Jen Stevens, a commissioner, and editor-in-chief at Options Magazine, stated that while her relationship with law enforcement feels good in an environment like the training, the same cannot be said of her experiences out in the community. This was echoed by several community leaders.
Dreya Catozzi, founder of the Urban Trans Women’s Resource Center, told attendees that black trans women are targeted, attacked, and murdered more than most other victims, citing the 19 transwomen of color who had been murdered in the country to date in 2019. Catozzi said victims are reluctant to report hate incidents. Halima Ibrahim, a 16-year-old female Egyptian-American Muslim and an anti-gun violence activist with a disability, said that she felt that the process of reporting a hate-related incident can itself be victimizing because it is often too difficult for one to communicate what has happened.
What can Rhode Islanders do to improve relations with law enforcement and members of the community? RICPB Chairperson Joe Reddish suggested, “We started a process today. We must continue to talk to each other and share our fears and concerns while treating all people with dignity to significantly reduce hate in the state.”
Marty Cooper writes on the behalf of the RI Commission on Prejudice and Bias
The mission of the RI Commission on Prejudice and Bias is to study and report on all forms of prejudice and hatred in RI, and to revise and codify, if possible, all laws relating to all forms of prejudice, bias, and hatred. RICPB provides training to law enforcement agencies, facilitates educational trainings, and provides a conduit for anyone experiencing hate crime reporting challenges in RI. The Commission reports to the governor, and is comprised of members of law enforcement, clergy, and community members. Visit calloutprejudiceri.org for more info.