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States are trying to pass hate crime laws that protect trans people, the homeless — and cops

"One of the biggest differences this year is the unprecedented support we are receiving for enacting a hate crimes law."

by Tess Owen
Jan 16 2019, 3:53pm

Indiana is one of just five states without a hate crime law. For the last five years, Democrats and civil rights groups there have tried — and failed — to pass one.

This year, however, their efforts might just succeed.

The nationwide uptick in hate crimes last year has helped to create a renewed sense of urgency around protecting victims. In addition to Indiana, lawmakers in at least six other states have already introduced bills this year that seek to expand existing hate crime laws to cover new groups like homeless people, transgender Americans, and even police — or increase penalties. In 2017, the FBI received reports of more than 7,000 bias or hate crime incidents in 2017 — a 17 percent increase from the previous year, which continues a three-year trend.

Many of the states with new hate crime legislation have also experienced high-profile incidents of their own, like the murder of two black customers at grocery store in Louisville, Kentucky, or two enormous Nazi flags and Iron Crosses appearing on a building in Carmel, Indiana, not far from Indianapolis.

“We have to remember that while 45 states have hate crime laws on the books, we’re not just looking at the last five,” said Brian Levin, who heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “Some of the others don’t cover gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Expanding hate crime protection has traditionally been considered a liberal social justice issue, but a Republican state lawmaker introduced Indiana’s bill at the urging of Gov. Eric Holcomb, also a Republican. He’s tried to frame the bill as a “Hoosier” one and already gathered bipartisan support.

“One of the biggest differences this year is the unprecedented support we are receiving for enacting a hate crimes law,” Republican state representative Tony Cook, who introduced the bill, wrote in an email to VICE News. “This year, we have the voices of a wide variety of religious, academic and even business groups behind us, and I think this momentum can help carry this bill through the legislative process.”

Protecting gender identity

Seventeen states plus Washington, D.C., currently have hate crime laws prohibiting discrimination against gender identity. This year, New York — and even red states like Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana — want to join them.

Corporate America has proven an unlikely force of change for transgender Americans, and lawmakers have started to realize the financial and political incentives to extending hate crime protections to them as a group. North Carolina’s infamous “bathroom bill,” for example, ultimately cost the state $3.76 billion in lost business.

“This is now a business question,” Levin said. “In an increasingly competitive market, why would businesses want to be located in a state that doesn’t offer protections for its employees?”

"One of the biggest differences this year is the unprecedented support we are receiving for enacting a hate crimes law."

In Indiana, Gov. Holcomb bucked his party to come out in strong support of hate crime protections for transgender individuals, not only because it’s “the right thing to do,” he said, but also because he wants to make Indiana an attractive destination for companies. Some state Republicans, however, have already drafted a competing bill that contains no language about specific classes that the new hate crime law should protect.

“[Gov. Holcomb] very much understands that this is a quality-of-place issue,” said David Sklar, co-chair of the Indiana Forward campaign, a coalition of 100 business, religious, and community groups fighting for the new hate crime law in Indiana. “Indiana has done a lot to attract and support businesses, like creating a favorable tax climate, but one of the things that our leaders continue to hear is that we need to address quality-of-place and diversity issues, as well as taxes.”

On Tuesday, the New York Legislature passed a bill that added transgender protections to its hate crime bill, a long-fought victory for Democrats who have tried to expand the law for 16 years. The party regained control of the Legislature for the first time in a decade in November.

Virginia Democrats have also filed a bill to add sexual orientation and gender identity to its hate crime law, despite previous efforts failing because of pushback from Republicans.

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Indianapolis prosecutor Terry Curry talks about hate crimes legislation at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. Indiana remains one of just five states without a clear and specific hate crimes law. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Attacks on the homeless

Legislators in both New York and New Mexico have so far proposed legislation that establish crimes against homeless people as hate crimes. (New York’s bill passed Tuesday.)

In 2016, the year with the most recent data available, 29 attacks against homeless people were reported nationwide, 11 of which were fatal, according to the National Coalition against Homelessness. That’s down from the previous year, when the organization counted 83 attacks against homeless people, 37 of which were fatal.

Many states already offer varying levels of protection for homeless individuals, but Alaska, Florida, and Maryland have specifically broadened their hate crime statutes to protect people from discrimination based on housing status.

Even some cities, faced with rising levels of homelessness, have moved to pass local ordinances that add protections for their homeless residents. Seattle, Washington, for example, has an ordinance that adds extra penalties for malicious harassment — that targets homeless people, which falls under its hate crime law. And in Los Angeles, which has seen epidemic levels of homelessness in recent years, city council members unanimously voted in favor of a resolution last November to label attacks on homeless people a hate crime.

Blue Lives Matter

Likely as a trade-off for hardline Republicans, lawmakers in Indiana also want to protect police, firefighters, and veterans in their new hate crime law. Republican lawmakers in New York and Oklahoma have also proposed expanding their states’ hate crime protections for law enforcement officers, an idea that has widespread support from police unions.

Adding cops to hate crime laws began as part of the “Blue Lives Matter” movement — a conservative counterpoint to the Black Lives Matter movement, which some critics blamed for a spate of ambush attacks on police officers in 2016. Civil rights groups and Democrats, however, often argue that hate crimes should only protect immutable characteristics that a person can’t change about themselves, like race or gender — and shouldn’t be extended to law enforcement.

All fifty states currently have enhanced penalties for individuals who harm law enforcement, but only a handful specifically protect them in their hate crime laws, including Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Strengthening existing hate crime laws

Some states aren’t seeking to add any new groups to its hate crimes statutes but instead, expand their ability to punish the perpetrators.

In Maryland, for example, a new bill could make defacing property with nooses, swastikas, or other similar symbols a misdemeanor hate crime that carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a hefty fine. The bill aims to close a loophole in current hate crime law, which was spotlighted when a man accused of hanging a noose at a middle school in Anne Arundel County was acquitted of hate crime charges last January. According to the Maryland State Police, incidents of hate-related vandalism at schools nearly doubled between 2016 and 2017, mirroring a trend observed on a national scale.

The shortcomings of Kentucky’s hate crime law were also highlighted after a white man opened fire at a Kroger Supermarket near Louisville last October and killed two black customers. Because the state’s hate crime law did not cover murder, the shooter couldn’t be charged with state hate crimes.Legislation proposed by Kentucky state legislators on Jan. 10 seeks to change that. (The gunman was, however, charged with federal hate crimes.)

The issue of hate crimes has especially harrowed Virginia, whose small college town of Charlottesville was the site of the violent Unite the Right rally in August 2017. Lawmakers in the state have proposed the creation of a centralized system within the state police department that would collect information about hate crimes and hate groups, and require local police departments to report such crimes. More data about hate crimes would allow lawmakers to understand the scope of the problem in Virginia, and come up with appropriate policy solutions in response.

Cover image: A gun lies on the ground inside a police barricade following a shooting at a Kroger grocery that left two people dead and a suspect in custody, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, in Jeffersontown, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)