Salem Reporter: Why a new Oregon law seeks to improve how hate crimes are reported

November 7, 2019
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Source: Salem Reporter », By Jake Thomas, November 6, 2019

Improved data could reveal the breadth of hate in Oregon while aiding law enforcement and community groups.

In late October, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office won the first conviction under Oregon’s new hate crime law. The case involved a 50-year-old man who hurled slurs at two gay men before picking a fight with them.

The conviction marks a shift in Oregon’s response to hate crimes under a new law passed earlier this year. The law being implemented by prosecutors, police and others also could shed light on the breadth of hate in Oregon and result in a broader response.

The FBI’s annual release of hate crime statistics shows the number of incidents rising in Oregon and nationally. The statistics are widely used but the FBI relies on data given voluntarily by local jurisdictions, which differ in how they document hate crimes.

In Oregon, large swaths of the state report no hate crimes while others appear to be hotbeds.

“It’s fair to say that the cities that report zero hate crimes are overlooking the incidents,” said Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.

The new law seeks to change that. Earlier this year, the Oregon Legislature passed the first update to the state’s hate crimes law in decades. Senate Bill 577 broadened the law to include crimes against people over their sexual orientation or gender identity while stiffening penalties in other situations.

The new law also directs the Oregon District Attorneys Association and the Oregon State Police to develop a standard for recording data on hate crimes and other incidents that’ll be used across the state.

Law enforcement officials and advocacy groups hope that the data will provide a more complete picture of hate in Oregon, allowing them to develop a more targeted response while providing better support for victims.

Rosenblum said she’s not aware of any other state taking such a comprehensive approach. She said that the work implementing the law is being overseen by a 20-person steering committee that includes representatives from law enforcement, prosecutors, lawmakers, minority advocacy groups and others.

“There is some trust being built between all the players, and new systems aren’t always easy to institute,” said Nancy Haque, the executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, whose group was involved with the task force and legislation. “But people are going into the process earnestly. And I actually think it’s going to be a model program.”

New look at old problem

Oregon’s hate crimes law was enacted in the 1980s in response to prevalent white supremacist gangs. In recent years, defendants in two high-profile racially motivated attacks were given lesser charges because they acted alone, prompting a new look at the law. The attorney general convened a task force in March 2018 to consider updating the law.

Rosenblum said the task force heard from victims and people afraid to walk into their own synagogue.

“The theme was that people didn’t really feel like they had anywhere to turn,” she said.

The new law directs the state Justice Department to set up a “hate crimes hotline” that’ll collect data.

Haque said that the hotline would be “game-changing,” providing a uniform way of reporting incidents across the state while connecting victims to resources.

Haque said that having more complete data would reveal upticks in hate crimes and help advocacy groups and law enforcement respond. She pointed to earlier this year when reports emerged on social media of harassment and violence against LGBTQ individuals in Portland.

She said she called the city and found out none of the incidents had been reported to police. She said she was reluctant to comment on the episodes when media called.

“I didn’t have a feeling of being able to say for sure, ‘watch out everyone, hate crimes are happening,’” said Haque. “Because it could terrify people.”

Andrew Riley, policy and communications associate for social justice group Unite Oregon, said that the law could better record incidents in rural areas and allow for “apples to apples” comparisons of jurisdictions. But the current data doesn’t allow that.

The FBI compiles statistics on hate crimes annually from data submitted by universities, tribal governments and local police. In 2017, 7,175 incidents nationwide were reported to the FBI. But the number is likely an undercount.

For the same year, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated there were 197,700 reported and nonreported bias-motivated incidents.

In Oregon, only 29 agencies submitted reports for the FBI’s most recent compilation. The most recent numbers included 146 incidents in the state for 2017, a 40 percent increase from 2016. Cities including Bend, Medford, Roseburg and Grants Pass didn’t report any hate crimes.

Eugene, a city of over 168,000, accounted for nearly half of the state’s incidents.

Lessons from Eugene

Rosenblum said that Eugene isn’t necessarily a hotbed of hate and that the high number of reported crimes could be because of the city’s strong reporting system.

“We have a larger umbrella for capturing what’s going on in the community,” said Fabio Andrade, human rights and equity analyst at the city of Eugene.

He said that the city’s Office of Human Rights and Neighborhood Involvement works with the police and the several community organizations to track hate crimes as well as incidents involving bias that don’t rise to criminal activity. He said that the “most important thing” is that people feel comfortable reporting and that the city follows up with victims to direct them to support services.

Similar to Eugene, Oregon’s updated hate crimes law recognizes “bias incidents,” which don’t rise to the level of a criminal case but involve someone directing hostility toward someone over their race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or other protected categories. Data on reported bias incidents will be analyzed by the state Criminal Justice Commission.

Haque said such data could be useful. She pointed to how Jeremy Christian, who is accused of fatally stabbing two passengers on a MAX train after confronting two black teenagers, had been in early altercations.

Rosenblum said that her task force heard from people who said these incidents can be traumatic and they want a response.

She said people now can report bias incidents to the hotline, which will be answered by volunteers. She said staff will follow up with a “culturally competent response” that could include referral to local victims services, such as counseling. The law directs the hotline’s coordinator to develop training for community groups and service providers to assist victims.

“The most important part is to get people who are victims to report,” she said.

Andrade said that Eugene police have liaisons to minority communities to help build trust. Officers are trained to recognize hate crimes, such as racist graffiti, he said.

Oregon’s new law does not specify new training for police. But Eriks Gabliks, director of the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, said in an email that the 16-week basic police course covers hate crimes law and how to investigate them.

‘A clearer picture’

Currently, the Oregon District Attorneys Association and the state police are developing a standard method to gather data on investigations, arrests, prosecutions and sentencing related to hate crimes.

Jeff Howes, a prosecutor and first assistant to the district attorney in the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, said that Benton, Lane and Multnomah counties will launch a one-year pilot program in July next year to test the new system before it goes statewide.

“We are going to get a clearer picture, I think, of how prosecutors view bias crimes, what they can prove, what they can’t prove and what they do with that,” he said.

He said that improved data will show when prosecutors could and couldn’t sustain hate crime charges, as well as when they’re being referred by police for prosecution. He said it will also communicate to the public that law enforcement takes the issue seriously.

The Criminal Justice Commission won’t report findings to the Legislature until July 2021. Advocates like Haque are optimistic.

“I’m as excited as someone can be talking about awful things,” she said.