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“We, as a community, haven’t had the best relationships with government agencies,” said Equality Michigan Director of Victim Services Nusrat Ventimiglia as she introduced a panel of representatives from State and Federal departments in town to discuss the issue of crime reporting. “But times have changed and we have tremendous allies in the FBI and law enforcement.”
Representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the U.S. Department of Education joined Equality Michigan and Affirmations on Aug. 22 for the Federal Hate Crimes Dialogue about LGBT Bullying and Harassment and Hate Crimes in Our Communities. The event was at Affirmations in Ferndale.
Ventimiglia explained that the LGBT community has historically underreported crime, noting that at Equality Michigan only 52 percent of the cases they hear about are reported to law enforcement.
Brenda Jeanetta, Corruption and Civil Rights Coordinator for the FBI, said, “There is a reluctance to report a crime because of reluctance to admit affiliation with the LGBT community. Maybe someone doesn’t want to come to law enforcement, but they may come to Equality Michigan or Affirmations.”
The importance of reporting isn’t just so that the victim can get help. It can help stop someone from going on to victimize others. And the numbers of crimes are used when lobbying for legislation, applying for grants, and showing society in general how crimes of bias hurt an entire class of people.
Dan Levy of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights said, “It’s too easy when things aren’t being reported for people to say it’s no big deal.”
He said that crime reporting data helps demonstrate the need for inclusive hate crimes protections and programming to address the needs of the LGBT community. He added an example of where one incident report can have an un-told chain effect.
“People don’t always see the way their reporting makes a difference,” Levy said. He gave an example of a police officer being unprofessional on a traffic stop. “A person tells the police supervisor about an action. The supervisor talks to the officer, or maybe even the whole department, and from then on people are treated differently, but they [the person who made the report] may never know about it.”
Levy also bridged the gap between federal hate crimes and state hate crimes. The Matthew Sheppard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 only covers crimes that the Federal government is able to prosecute and is limited to violent acts. “Personal property crimes…need to be covered by a state hate crimes law. In Michigan the State Police, the Sheriffs Association, the Chiefs of Police Association and the Prosecuting Attorneys Association have all come out in support of amending the state hate crimes law to include sexual orientation, expression and identity. …From a law enforcement perspective, this is a law enforcement issue. This is a community safety issue. It’s not a gay rights issue. It’s not about lifestyles. It’s about people being protected from crimes.”
Under the current Michigan hate crimes law, if someone does property damage or makes threats towards someone with elements of ethnic intimidation or religious hate, or hate against people because of their age, gender or disability they could be charged with a hate crime. This means that their action was not just intended to harm the victim, but also to spread fear in that victim’s community. However, if someone commits a crime meant to spread fear in the gay community, there is no legal recognition of this broader impact. Levy said that sometimes local law enforcement may not take it seriously if someone has a gay slur graffittied on their garage or if other threats are made, because there is no good law in place defining those as bias motivated.
Ted Wammers of the U.S. Dept. of Education explained that students need not fear reporting bullying or harassment, because even though the anti-bullying laws are not enumerated to protect LGBT youth, they do have protection for every student from the acts of bullying.
U.S. District Attorney Ann Thompson also assured the public that they work within the confines of the law to get justice for people in the LGBT community, explaining that sometimes harassment can be given harsher penalties if it falls into the realm of other laws. For example, there are federal laws that can be used if threats are made over a computer or using U.S. Mail and there are sentencing enhancements that can be made if other forms of bias are used.
The overall message of the day was that people who are victims of crimes should report them, if not to law enforcement, at least to an agency like Affirmations or Equality Michigan so they can track the number of reported incidents and let victims know about what support may be available to them. Affirmations refers victims to Equality Michigan for reporting.