Whether through seminars, academies, safety courses, presentations or meetings over coffee, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is reaching out to the various community groups it serves. By proactively engaging citizens now, the FBI hopes to make the reporting and prevention of crime more genial and easier in the future.
One such endeavor is just now starting to form. The Department of Justice Community Task Force on Hate Crimes will partner with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri and the FBI’s Kansas City Division to reach out to local community and advocacy groups on the Kansas City metro’s Missouri side, including LGBT-related nonprofit organizations.
FBI, jurisdiction and hate crimes
Seven years after its 1870 creation, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) began taking on some law enforcement duties regarding interstate commerce. The FBI was created as a constituent DOJ agency in 1908 and was initially charged with investigating crimes against the United States. The agency’s primary constitutional authority to investigate interstate crimes was based on the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Subsequent acts of Congress and federal case law have refined or enhanced the FBI’s role in law enforcement and counterintelligence, with the aim of balancing its powers with state sovereignty.
In 1998, two widely publicized hate crimes shocked the nation. In Wyoming, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered because he was gay. In Texas, 49-year-old James Byrd Jr. was dragged to dismemberment and death because he was African American. These two horrific acts brought attention to bias-motivated crime in the United States. The Civil Rights Act of 1968, which was the pertinent legislation in force in 1998, covered the classes of race, color, religion and national origin, but applied to only those crimes perpetrated while the victim was participating in a federally protected activity, such as enrolling in college or voting. This restriction made enforcement and prosecution very difficult.
In 1990, Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, which broadened the definition of a hate crime, adding disability and sexual orientation. These additions applied only to statistics-gathering, not to criminal prosecutions.
In 2001, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was introduced into Congress for the first time, and it subsequently failed to pass in several sessions. Finally, a version of the bill was affirmed in 2009 and signed by President Obama.
The new law now includes in the definition of bias crimes those motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Its passage also removed the requirement that the victim be engaged in a federally protected activity when the crime takes place. With this law on the books, the FBI is now required to track statistics on hate crimes against all covered groups. The specifics of the covered crimes are still a little confusing, however, because the groups are not covered uniformly under the narrow federal definition.
According to an FBI brochure:
This new federal civil rights law criminalizes willfully causing bodily injury (or attempting to do so with fire, a firearm, or other dangerous weapon) when: (1) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, of any person, or (2) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person, and the crime affected interstate or foreign commerce, or occurred on federal property.[/QUOTE>
Motivation is key to the definition of a hate crime, but federal statutes do not cover verbal threats, only bodily injury. Misperceptions persist, however, with some thinking these laws amount to formal speech codes. They do not. The First Amendment prohibits such codes. Hate-crime laws do allow for enhanced sentencing, though, when compared to crimes committed without proven bias.
There are additional federal statutes that delineate federally protected activities and specify criminal activities that meet the definition of federal hate crimes (see fbi.org).
The FBI has a list of priorities. Among them is protecting the United States from terrorism, foreign intelligence/espionage and cyber/high-technology attacks or crimes