by Sarah Rutledge Fischer
This is the second installment of a three-part series by Focus® Middle Tennessee magazine. We have developed this series in the hope that law enforcement and citizens will have a better understanding of the intricacies of our nation’s hate crime law, a law that was written after the horrific deaths of a black man, James Byrd, and a young gay man, Matthew Shepard. These two men were lost to the bias and lack of understanding of a few disturbed people. Because of the Federal hate crimes law, James and Matthew have received some measure of justice.
HALF OF HATE CRIMES GO UNREPORTED
It is conventional wisdom that what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed. In the world of law enforcement, it would be more accurate to say that what doesn’t get reported cannot be measured or managed, and in the realm of hate crime enforcement, lack of reporting is a real problem.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2017 Special Report on Hate Crime Victimization, approximately 54% of all hate crime victimizations were not reported to the police from 2011-15. Of the hate crimes that were not reported, 41% had been handled privately or through a non-law enforcement official, such as an apartment manager or school official. Another 23% were not reported because the victims believed that the police would not want to be bothered, would be ineffective, or would cause trouble for the victim. Another 19% failed to report because they did not believe that the crime was important enough to report to police.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation has been so concerned about the issue that last summer it launched a survey asking residents of Denver, Colorado about their experiences as victims of hate crimes and why they did or did not report the incident to the police. Early results lined up with the data found by the Department of Justice. Many people expressed confusion about whether or not an incident was a hate crime. Many were skeptical that law enforcement would aggressively investigate. Many were afraid of retaliation. Even among those who did report, results were mixed. One disabled gay man who had been attacked found the officers compassionate and effective. But others found the responding officers unsympathetic or unresponsive.
There is no consensus on the solution to the problem. Law enforcement agencies around the country are making strides to educate offices and establish trust with vulnerable communities. The Matthew Shepard Foundation continues to work alongside law enforcement to improve officer education and increase the support of vulnerable communities.
“In our work we try to include everyone who feels marginalized,” Judy and Dennis Shepard have said. “We want them to know they are not alone and not without help. They need to know that they have a voice. We need to connect the dots. We need to provide victims with more support. We need to provide law enforcement with the tools to properly investigate, prosecute, and report these crimes.”
The Matthew Shepard Foundation is still gathering data on Denver hate crimes that happened in 2017. If you or someone you know has something to contribute, you can find the survey at DenverHateCrimeSurvey.com.
TENNESSEE BUREAU OF INVESTIGATIONS
Behind all of the work local law enforcement does to address and prevent hate crimes is the support, training, and data gathering work of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (TBI).
The TBI was established in the early 1950s after the botched investigation of a horrific Greene County murder. The crime, in which a man was shot through his bedroom window while in the company of his wife and children, shocked the region, but due to incompetent police work the murderer was never found. At the urging of community leaders, the governor established an unbiased state agency to assist local law enforcement in the investigation of serious crimes. That agency became what we now know as the TBI.
These days, the TBI continues their original mission by assisting local Tennessee law enforcement agencies with training, investigation, forensic science, and general support. In addition, as required under Tenn. Code 38-10-101 to 105, the TBI manages the collection of data relating to crime, criminals, and criminal activity across the state. The program used by the TBI for this purpose is called the Tennessee Incident Based Reporting System (TIBRS). Each local law enforcement agency in Tennessee has a Reporting Agency Coordinator, trained by the TBI on using TIBRS to record all manner of crime data. Since 2014, the TBI has also offered a TIBRS training class for law enforcement officers, deputies, and supervisors.
One of the categories of data gathered by the TBI through TIBRS is data on the incidence of hate or bias motivated crimes. Each year the collected data is compiled into a Hate Crime Annual Report that provides agencies across the state with a big picture look at bias motivated crimes that occurred and were reported in Tennessee.
“We are committed to using our data in as many ways as possible,” says Niland. “Our goal is to be the most transparent state in the nation.”
The data gathered through TIBRS is currently available to the public through the bureau’s Tennessee Crime Online Statistics Website (crimeinsight.tbi. tn.gov), but without extensive training in statistical analysis and TIBRS, it is a little difficult for a layperson to navigate. To bridge that divide, the TBI is releasing a Theme Oriented Public Site (TOPS) specifically designed for public and media use. Initially, TOPS will cover only the categories of Crimes Against Persons, DUI/Drugs, and Property Crimes, but in 2019 it will add Hate Crimes, Law Enforcement Officers Killed or Assaulted, and Use of Force.
When it comes to combatting hate crime, the TBI knows that access to current data is important.
“Without the data, we cannot measure the scope of the problem,” says TBI Communications Officer Susan Niland. “In order to prevent crimes and criminal behavior, you must first understand it. Hate crime is prevalent in all of the United States. We know that because of the data we are obtaining and analyzing.”
QUICK FACTS: HATE CRIME IN TENNESSEE from the TBI’s 2016 TN Hate Crime Report
• Overall, the number of bias motivated victims decreased from 2015-2016.
• Religious Bias victim offenses decreased from 31 victims in 2015 to 18 victims in 2016.
• Simple Assault was the most frequently reported bias motivated offense in 2016 with 63 victims or 33.5% of hate crime victims.
• In 2016, the number of Damage/ Destruction/Vandalism hate crime offenses decreased 27.3% from the previous year.
• Males (53.7%) were victimized at a higher rate than females (46.3%)
• 36 victims and 52 offenders in 2016 were juveniles (under age 18).
• 28.9% of hate crime offenses were committed by individuals from the Under 18 age group.”
• 75.4% of hate crime offenders were male, 21.7% were female, with the remaining offenders reported with an unknown gender.
• 12 noon through 2:59 pm was the most commonly reported time period for bias- motivated crimes with 43 incidents. • 33 bias motivated incidents were Cleared by Arrest in 2016.
• The majority of hate crimes occurred at a location of Residence/Home.
• The most often documented bias was Racial reported 40.7% in 2016.
• Anti-Black or African American Bias accounted for 16.7% of all racial Biases in 2016.
SHELBY COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT
The average law enforcement agency may think that a basic training curriculum’s coverage of hate crimes is sufficient education for their officers, but the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department isn’t willing to settle for average. They aim to rise above in serving Shelby County’s most vulnerable communities, and to do so they are taking three-prong approach—educate officers, establish trust with communities, and open the door to communication.
The first step to improving their ability to respond to hate crime is training. Sgt. Natalie Hillman, the Department’s LGBT Liaison, developed a course on LGBT issues a few years ago with former Liaison, Det. Barbara Tolbert. When the course was first implemented, all upper command staff were required to attend. They next made it part of an in-service training attended by all officers. Since then, every class that comes through the Department attends the course, whether they are new recruits, reserve officers, or part of the citizens’ academy.
The course has always covered hate crimes against the LGBT community. Recently Sgt. Hillman has expanded the curriculum to address all hate crimes—a move that creates a more inclusive program and has resulted in more participants finding a personal connection to the subject matter.
“Our Sheriff takes great pride in it,” said Sgt. Hillman. “He is very adamant about making sure that people are treated fairly here in Shelby County. He wants to put it out there. He wants our officers to understand that [hate crime] is not going to be tolerated.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, Sgt. Hillman is still working to improve officer training. After the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s Hate Crimes Summit last fall, Hillman returned to Sheriff William “Bill” Oldham with the concern that the Department could be failing to identify some crimes as possible hate crimes in the early stages of investigation. The Department is now working on tracking internal data more carefully. They are also providing supervisors, who review officer reports, with additional training on identifying facts that could indicate possible hate crimes so that it can be logged and further investigation can get underway.
The second step to improving hate crime response is getting out into the community and establishing trust. Sgt. Hillman is aware that distrust of law enforcement is common in many most vulnerable populations, so she does everything she can to get the Department out into those communities. Not only do they participate in big community events like Pride, they also work with any community group interested in having the Department out to speak.
“We are here to help you,” she wants them to know. “We are not going to tolerate [hate crime]. The Sheriff is not going to tolerate it. And we will actually take action against those particular issues.”
The final step to improving hate crime response is making it easier for victims to ask for help. One initiative on Sgt. Hillman’s desk is the creation of a web-based system for sending messages to the Sheriff’s Department. Users will even be able to choose to be anonymous and reveal their identity only once they are confident that the Sheriff’s Department is there to help.
At the end of the day, Sgt. Hillman wants the community to know they have someone in their corner.
“People need to know that we actually have somebody who is assigned to help in situations like this . . . call in and let us know what’s going on . . . give us an opportunity to fix it.”
If you are interested in learning more about the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department’s LGBT Liaison program or arranging for the department to come out to visit your organization, contact Sgt. Natalie Hillman at 901-222-4964.
CREATING SAFE PLACES
Around the county, law enforcement officers have a challenge when it comes to addressing hate crime. Over half of LGBT hate crime victims do not come forward to report the crimes to the police. You can’t prevent or address what you don’t know is happening, so encouraging people to report has been one of the biggest challenges in this arena.
In Seattle, Washington in 2015, Officer Jim Ritter was grappling with this very problem. As a member of Seattle’s gay community, he heard talk of hate crime incidents against the LGBT community, but few of these crimes were actually being reported. Most of the crimes he heard of were being committed in commercial areas, so he had an idea . . . an idea that turned into a program that has been implemented across the country.
Ritter’s program is called Safe Place, and it is fairly simple. Participating businesses commit to provide a safe place where victims of hate crimes can shelter while waiting for police. Each location displays a bright window sticker that reads “SAFE PLACE” in large block letters atop a rainbow striped police shield. The businesses train their employees to call the police immediately if they witness a hate crime or if a hate crime victim comes inside and to provide that person with a safe place to shelter until police arrive.
The program has been successful in encouraging the report of hate crimes to area police. It has also set the table for open discussion about hate crime in the LGBT community and throughout the city. Even more importantly, it has begun to build trust between the police and the communities most vulnerable to hate crimes.
What Ritter was dealing with in Seattle is a national struggle, and the Safe Place program’s success has caught the eye of other police departments around the country. Safe Place programs have been established in Denver, Tuscon, Los Angeles, Miami, and St. Louis among others. The most notable adoption of the program was in the city of Orlando. The City of Orlando and the Orlando Police Department launched a Safe Place initiative a little over a year ago, on the six-month anniversary of the Pulse Night Club massacre.
What do you say, Memphis? Should we be next?
For more information on the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, check out the resources available from the Human Rights Campaign at hrc.org/resources/topic/hate-crimes.
For information on what the state of Tennessee is doing under its current hate crime laws, check out the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s 2016 Tennessee Hate Crime annual report at tn.gov/tbi/article/recent-publications.
For more information on current nationwide efforts to strengthen hate crime legislation and reporting at all levels, check out the Matthew Shepard Foundation at matthewshepard.org/
Coming May 1: Hate Crimes Part 3 of 3: In Our City
Memphis already has an LGBT support network. We’ll help readers understand how to connect. In our next (and final) installment of Hate Crimes Special Pages, we’ll talk to schools, prosecutors and OUTMemphis to meet the boots on the ground in the fight against hate crimes.
ABOUT THE JOURNALIST: Sarah Rutledge Fischer is licensed as an attorney in both California and Alabama but is not currently engaged in the practice of law. If you are in need of legal advice, please seek individual counsel with an attorney licensed in your state.