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Back to Archives | Back to April 2004 Contents 

Law Enforcement Must Take Lead on Hate Crimes

By Karen L. Bune, Adjunct Professor, Department of Criminal Justice, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia

Hate crimes occur in jurisdictions nationwide. In some communities, however, they are more prevalent than others. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the law enforcement community became more keenly attuned to the reality of hate-induced crimes and their impact on victims and neighborhoods.

Hate crimes are unique.1 Victims of hate crimes are targeted because of a core characteristic of their identity. Victims often feel degraded, frightened, vulnerable, and suspicious. A hate crime can be one of the most traumatic experiences of the victim’s life, and the crime can be felt throughout the entire community. Because of the impact of a hate crime, law enforcement executives must take the leadership role in preventing the crime and prosecuting the offenders.

Establishing Leadership

The law enforcement executive knows that if a hate crime is not handled properly, the results can have an adverse impact on the image of the department. This is beyond the damage to the victim and community. The issue is simple: the manner in which officers in the field handle hate crimes depends on the priority and importance that is placed on the crimes by the department’s leadership. Law enforcement executives can show leadership for a proactive approach toward hate crimes by establishing the following:

  • Policy

  • General orders

  • Procedures

  • Resources

  • Training

The most important leadership element is to ensure resources are available for prevention, investigation, apprehension, and prosecution of offenders. By taking aggressive action against offenders, the message is clearly sent that the behavior is not tolerated.

In Hate Crime Enforcement, Little Things Count
Al Shearer, a retired detective with the Phoenix Police Department, described a case in which police officers responded to the apartment of an elderly Jewish woman. She had discovered that someone had removed the cardboard Happy Hanukah sign from her door and left a swastika in its place. The woman was a survivor of the Nazi death camps.“The crime is not a $1 piece of cardboard,” Shearer said. “The crime is intimidation and harassment and must be treated as such.”

When the leadership ensures that all members of the department are properly trained to handle hate crimes, then the field officers will react appropriately based on their training. The Prince William County Police Department in Virginia provides special training on hate crimes, but more importantly this training is incorporated into the overall cultural training provided to officers. Cultural training is part of the basic and ongoing cycles of in-service training in Prince William County. By incorporating cultural awareness in the regular training cycle, the department is establishing this awareness as a high priority of the department’s leadership.

In addition to internal preparation for hate crimes, there are a number of external actions that the department leadership can take to help direct the community energies into constructive actions and strategies. Included in these actions are the following:

  • Establish clearly that the department has “zero tolerance” to any form of hate crime, regardless of apparent seriousness2

  • Participate or sponsor community events and activities promoting diversity, tolerance, bias reduction and conflict resolution

  • Collaborate with community organizations, schools and other public agencies to develop coordinated approaches to hate crime prevention and response

  • Engage the media as partners in restoring victimized communities and preventing bias-motivated incidents and crimes

The police department needs to remain alert to symptoms of hate and bias groups within the community. Organizations or loose confederations of individuals whose rhetoric or literature targets groups of individuals for discrimination and abuse can create an atmosphere that breeds more aggressive acts. If the community demonstrates indifference to hate-oriented groups then the message is inadvertently sent that the police and community tolerate this behavior. By following these guidelines, police departments can work in a constructive and professional manner to counter these groups.

Impact on Victims

Hate crimes can have a tremendous impact on victims. Typical hate crimes include simple and aggravated assaults, threats and intimidation, harassment, and property crimes that include vandalism and destruction of property. Hate and bias crimes can also involve derogatory language as well as racial and religious epithets and slurs. Hate and bias crime offenders may employ hate symbols such as swastikas, burning crosses, and hate-related graffiti, and they tend to commit their crimes near a location commonly associated with a specific group of people.

It is not uncommon for hate crimes to go unreported because victims of these crimes often feel they will not be taken seriously or think they may become targets of an investigation themselves. If they do report the crime, victims are often fearful of retaliation and worry there could be additional criminal incidents that could escalate or lead to violence.

It is not uncommon for victims of these crimes to experience feelings of shame, anger, and bitterness. Moreover, their self-esteem may be damaged. Sometimes they blame themselves for being victimized, although they are innocent victims. As a consequence of their victimization, victims may isolate themselves from others and possibly develop strong mistrust of other people. They often feel alone and vulnerable. Jay, a gay male victim who was assaulted and maliciously wounded in Arlington, Virginia, said, “You end up hating yourself. Your feel like you have no self-worth.”

Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit

The impact hate crimes have on victims and communities necessitates assertive strategies in dealing with the issue of victimization. A proactive approach has been taken by the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., through the establishment of a unit within the department to specifically handle issues affecting the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community. The unit’s goals are threefold: to educate the police, to educate the community, and to build trust.

Building trust between the police department and the minority communities is difficult. In general, the GLBT community does not trust the police, so the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit focuses on knowing what to ask and how to do so with sensitivity. In D.C., liaison means to get out of the office and into the community. The unit will meet the citizens in a setting where they feel comfortable. Another important focus is to make the liaison unit a one-shop stop, where the unit not only serves a liaison role with the gay and lesbian community but also conducts the investigations into crimes against the community. Liaison units will also need to deal with quality-of-life issues that include intimidation and neighborhood problems. For example, it is not uncommon for members of the gay community to be targeted for harassment and attacks while riding on public transit systems.

Alcohol or Drug Involvement

From the work of the D.C. Unit an interesting factor has emerged. According to the unit, assault-type hate crimes are the most common in the GLBT community and 90 percent of these assaults involve alcohol or other drug use on the part the suspect, victim or both. The unit also describes that the GLBT typical hate crime occurs after midnight and involves one or more assailants and their perceptions that the victims are members of the GLBT community.

The unit’s experience has established that those persons who do use drugs in the GLBT community are more likely to abuse ecstasy, gamma hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), marijuana, and speed. This of course does not mean that drug use is widespread in the GLBT community; it is simply an observation that recreational drugs and victimization have a common thread when assaults occur.

Another observation is risk taking by various members of the GLBT community. Some members of the GLBT community (just like some members of the heterosexual population) will engage in the risky behavior of cruising the Internet and inviting strangers or newly formed acquaintances into their homes. Part of the department’s outreach program is to impart knowledge and information concerning strategies for protection and reduction of vulnerability.

Statistics Increase = Better Reporting

Once a department begins to actively investigate hate crimes and demonstrate aggressive action, the number of incidents reported to the police will most likely increase. This is to be expected and is not necessarily reflective of sudden increase in the community’s frequency of hate crimes. Two factors contribute to this statistical increase.

The first factor is that the responding officers are better prepared to recognize the crime and complete the investigative reports by properly identifying the nature of the crime. Recording the elements of the offense and collecting the evidence that clearly demonstrates a hate crime require a training effort by the department. Once the training is accomplished, the department can expect quality field reports properly identifying the crime.

The second factor is that the victims in the community will develop a confidence level in the police and report the incidents instead of withdrawing or hiding in shame. The most sensitive crime against a person involves a victim’s vulnerability. In particular, this is a common thread in those victimized by hate and bias crimes. A major part of the department’s outreach effort is to educate the community and reduce the feelings of vulnerability experienced by persons within the minority communities like the GLBT. The department needs to engage in public relations efforts so the victims will feel comfortable calling the police for help.

The fact that the number of reported incidents increases does not necessarily mean the actual number of incidents of hate crimes has increased; rather, it may mean that victims are more likely to report an incident, thanks in part to the department’s relationship-building efforts. As one investigative sergeant advises, “Don’t bury your head in the sand. Don’t think you are seeing the exact number of hate crimes in the community. You are not. Don’t expect hate crime victims to come to you.” It is important to seek out hate crime victims and build trust so that the department’s leadership really knows the hate crime situation in their community.

Photographs of graffiti, epithets, and symbols should be taken immediately to preserve the evidence. Police should then see to it that the offending graffiti, epithets, or symbols are removed quickly to avoid continued victimization.

A Collaborative Criminal Justice Effort

The police leadership needs to build upon the critical importance of the collaborative and cooperative working relationships among various sectors within the criminal justice system to properly address hate crimes. The police arrive when crises occur, and they alleviate as much of the pain and suffering as possible. However, after the crisis is handled is when the trauma sets in, and it is important that victim services are a part of the healing effort; later, it involves coordination with prosecutors.

Victim Services: Victim services programs have a critical role in providing assistance to victims of hate crimes. Victim service professionals, commonly known as victim specialists or victim coordinators, possess fundamental knowledge of the criminal justice system and can assist victims in a comprehensive manner. In the aftermath of hate crime victimization, they can assess the nature and degree of trauma the victim has experienced and can provide immediate support and crisis intervention. Appropriate referrals can be made for counseling, medical care, financial compensation, and other services the victim may require. Victim specialists can explain the criminal justice process and procedures to victims and can ease their trepidation in following through on prosecution of the case.

Thirty-two states have a victims’ bill of rights, and victim specialists can fully explain these rights to victims of hate crimes. Some of the state laws include the right to confidentiality, the right to be informed of court dates and continuances, the right to have input into plea-bargaining and the criminal justice process, the right to court accompaniment, the right to submit a victim-impact statement, and the right to be notified of offender transfer or release, among many other elements.

In order to effectively serve victims of hate crimes, victim service providers must establish cooperative and collaborative working relationships with agencies and community organizations. It is extremely important for victim service agencies to have a linkage with their local and state police department as well as the federal agencies.

Law enforcement leadership can be exerted to ensure that cooperation occurs. The department leaders can cause police officers and victim specialists to meet and communicate on a regular basis to ensure cooperation with one another. By having ongoing dialogue and interaction, law enforcement and victim services can productively handle hate crime victimization in their communities. However, if the dialogue and interaction are not ongoing and occur on a case-only basis, the likelihood of cases falling through the cracks increases. Demonstrating leadership and bringing about the regularly scheduled opportunities of understanding and cooperation improves the quality of service to the whole community.

Prosecutors: The goal of a criminal investigation is to bring the offender to justice. Effective prosecution brings law enforcement and the community into greater harmony, thus creating a safer place for the citizens.

Local prosecutors must be a part of the leadership team from the beginning. Prosecutors must send clear messages that hate crimes will be prosecuted. Prosecutors should participate in the police training programs and maintain close ties with active investigations to ensure that the identity of the offender is established. By working together on highly sensitive and emotional cases, prosecutors and police can increase the chances of successful prosecution.

Department Policy

Police leaders should adopt the IACP Model Policy on Hate and Bias Crimes,3 making it clear that the policy of their law enforcement agencies is to safeguard the state and federal rights of all individuals irrespective of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or disability. That any acts or threats of violence, property damage, harassment, intimidation, or other crimes motivated by hate and bias and designed to infringe upon these rights are viewed very seriously and will be given high priority by the department. And that the agency will employ necessary resources and vigorous law enforcement action to identify and arrest hate crime perpetrators. Also, recognizing the particular fears and distress typically suffered by victims, the potential for reprisal and escalation of violence, and the far-reaching negative consequences of hate crimes on the community, the department will attend to the security and related concerns of the immediate victims and their families.

1 The FBI defines a hate or bias crime as “a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity/national origin” (U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reporting, Training Guide for Hate Crime Data Collection, revised 1999, ).

2There may be a tendency to treat certain hate incidents as vandalism, such as painting hate messages on walls or destroying property. The police leader needs to make it clear that these crimes will be treated as hate crimes.

3“Investigation of Hate and Bias Crimes,” a model policy from the IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center, and the accompanying concepts and issues paper were first developed in 1991 and revised in 2000. For more information, call or write to the IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314, 800-THE-IACP, or visit


From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 4, April 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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