By Dawn Wolfe
On Feb. 7 the U.S. Justice Department made Michigan history when Everett Avery plead guilty under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, for assaulting Justin Alesna while shouting anti-gay slurs. Avery has the dubious distinction of being the first person in Michigan convicted under Shepard/Byrd – but if the U.S. Department of Justice has its way, he definitely won’t be the last.
A Huge Difference
It wasn’t that long ago when LGBT individuals had reason to expect little good to come from contact with law enforcement. As recently as the 1970s and 80s many local police departments seemed more interested in raiding gay bars and harassing LGBT individuals than protecting either. Even in the 1990s and 2000s it wasn’t unusual for sexual minorities to feel as though local police departments were, at best, failing to make attacks against LGBT people a high priority.
In addition to overcoming anti-LGBT bias among some members of Michigan’s police departments, the state’s sexual minorities aren’t protected under Michigan’s hate crime statute. An attack like the one on Alesna can only be prosecuted as a simple assault, not as a hate-motivated crime under state law.
“At the state level, our laws do not recognize anti-LGBT motivated violence, so it has become imperative to work with local and state law enforcement agencies and officers to help educate them about hate violence directed at the LGBT communities,” explained Equality Michigan’s Director of Victim Services Yvonne Siferd. Equality Michigan has been advocating for victims of anti-LGBT bias crimes since its founding in 1991 as the then Triangle Foundation.
Since its 2009 passage, Shepard/Byrd has made Equality Michigan’s job much easier. “Shepard/Byrd includes mechanisms to train and raise awareness among law enforcement on how to determine if a crime was a hate crime,” Siferd continued. “As funding under the Act becomes available and is utilized, we anticipate there will be a noticeable increase in responsiveness among law enforcement.”
That process has already begun, according to U.S. Attorney Pamela Thompson. “Since Shepard/Byrd was enacted, this office along with our partners in MIAAHC (the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes – http://www.miaahc.com), have been conducting training and outreach to let the folks in state and local law enforcement know about this law,” she said. “The training also provides information on the Michigan Ethnic Intimidation Act and the other federal hate crime laws, as well as information about investigating and reporting hate crimes.”
“I think this training and outreach has been effective, and we have been getting referrals from local law enforcement.” Thompson is the U.S. Attorney who prosecuted Avery.
The Avery case shows how much more is possible now that federal law is on the side of the LGBT communities.
“At that time (of the attack on Alesna), the federal legislation was so new and many seasoned law enforcement officials were unaware of how to handle anti-LGBT motivated violence,” said Siferd. “On the date of the incident, officers from the Detroit Police Department were dispatched to the gas station where Justin was attacked. Though all witness accounts reported anti-gay slurs were used prior to and during the attack, the DPD initially noted the incident as a simple assault, with no hate/bias present. Equality Michigan worked closely with the DPD officers to educate them about Shepard/Byrd and its inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity as motivators for violent crime.” Siferd added that the Detroit department was “very receptive” to her office’s efforts.
Siferd next turned to the Department of Justice, “…(and they were) incredibly receptive and helpful,” she reported. “Pam Thompson, the U.S. Attorney who prosecuted Justin Alesna’s attacker, is wonderful to work with. She is energetic, passionate, and a terrific ally to the LGBTQ communities.”
While Shepard/Byrd is not retroactive – meaning that the U.S. Attorney’s Office can’t investigate potential hate crime cases that occurred before the Oct. 1, 2009 signing of the bill – work is going forward in terms of training Michigan’s law enforcement agencies regarding the impact of the new law. According to Thompson her office will be conducting hate crime trainings in Canton, Farmington Hills, and Grand Rapids in March and April.
In addition, her office and Equality Michigan will continue to work together to make sure that current hate crime victims receive justice; Thompson can’t discuss details, but she did say that her office is currently investigating other potential hate-crime cases.
“Individuals in the LGBT community, and other communities that are the victims of hate crimes, are often reluctant to contact law enforcement directly, so we rely on advocacy groups like Equality Michigan to let us know when crimes like this one occur,” Thompson said. “Equality Michigan has been an absolutely invaluable partner both in terms of letting us know immediately when these incidents happen (which is crucial for us in terms of the ability to conduct the investigation) and in their work with the victim throughout the investigation and prosecution.”
Thompson added that victims are also welcome to contact the DoJ directly.
Resources For Victims Of Anti-LGBT Hate Crimes
Regardless of where you live in Michigan – and whether or not law enforcement your municipality is respectful and affirming of sexual minorities – you do have recourse if you are the victim of an anti-LGBT hate crime. Equality Michigan and the Department of Justice encourage victims to come forward, and there are multiple ways for victims to reach out for help.
Equality Michigan: http://www.equalitymi.org
Equality Michigan has been advocating for LGBT victims of hate crimes and discrimination since 1991. There is no charge for victim advocacy services.
Federal Bureau of Investigation: 313-965-2323 (the duty agent will refer to the correct squad/county)
U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District (includes the counties in the eastern half of the lower peninsula):
US Attorney Pamela Thompson: 313-226-0770
Civil Rights Hotline: 313-226-9151
U.S. Attorney’s Office, Western District (west side of state and upper peninsula):
Don Daniels: 616-456 2404
Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes (MIAAHC): http://www.miaahc.com
MIAAHC State-wide crisis response line: 800-482-3604