The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released its long-awaited report on hate crimes in America this week, underscoring the issue of prejudice-fueled violence and rhetoric at a time where the number of reported hate crimes has swollen across the country.
The more than 300-page report –released Wednesday by the federal government – shows that bigotry-fueled speech and violence in America has exploded recently, with double-digit increases reported in all three years following the 2016 election. Though the number of reported hate crimes saw a slight decrease last year, according to the latest numbers released Tuesday by the FBI, the number of violent offenses like intimidation, assault and homicide rose to a 16-year high: an indication of a bolder trend taking place.
“Available evidence suggests hate crimes are increasing in America,” the report reads. “Many Americans are negatively impacted by hate crimes and are fearful of the heightened expression of hate and bigotry in the United States.”
On paper, Wyoming appears to be one of the least discriminatory places in the country.
And the problem could be worse: According to the report, gathering accurate national estimates of the prevalence of hate crimes “remains complicated,” largely due to voluntary reporting processes that can mean many crimes go unreported. In 2017, roughly 12 percent of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide did not submit hate crime data to the FBI while numerous intangible factors – including a lack of training or mistrust of law enforcement – can leave many crimes in the shadows.
“The numbers currently kept by the FBI are largely useless,” Roy Austin, a former deputy assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, was quoted as saying in the report.
This is particularly an issue in places like Wyoming, which not only does not require its agencies to report hate crimes to the FBI, but is one of just four states in the country without some form of hate crime statute – further muddying the prevalence of hate crimes in those states.
“This failure of enforcement does not mean a lack of hate crimes,” Catherine E. Lhamon, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said Wednesday in a press conference on the report.
Chronicling hate in Wyoming
While information on hate groups in Wyoming is sparing, the federal government has been working over the past year to document anecdotal information on the presence of hate groups and discrimination in the Equality State through a series of meetings with locals.
In a summit in Casper earlier this month, the Wyoming Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held an open hearing with several activist organizations around Wyoming and the Mountain West intended to glean a better understanding of just how prevalent the problem is and eventually, to produce a series of policy recommendations to address it.
Some in attendance expressed frustration over a lack of action on legislating hate crime laws or anti-discrimination measures, particularly as instances of hate and discrimination have piled up over the years. Incidents highlighted by those who testified included a rash of hate-filled episodes toward interracial couples over the past several years in Campbell County — blamed on a depressed coal market rather than inherent bias – the recent distribution of anti-LGBTQ and white supremacist propaganda in places like Cheyenne and Laramie, and the suicide of a young, gay man in Gillette, which came after months of harassment.
Others, like Northern Arapaho member and activist Sergio Maldonado, expressed frustration that crimes that seemed solely motivated by hate weren’t treated differently, noting a Riverton man’s life sentence after shooting two Native American men – killing one – at an alcohol detox facility in Fremont County in 2015 wasn’t prosecuted as a hate crime despite the specific targeting of people based on their race.
The distinction of hate crimes, numerous people argued, matters quite a bit. When every crime is just a crime, James Simmons, a former president of NAACP Casper said, it whitewashes the existence of racism, signaling to the worst in society that their crimes – not their prejudice – is the thing society is rejecting.
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“It’s hard to legislate morality,” Simmons said. “It’s a very hard thing to do. I love Wyoming, I’ve been here 48 years, raised a family here. And I do it because I want to see Wyoming better. And to do that, we have to get stories like this out in the open.”
Successfully prosecuting hate crimes – or refusing to – can send a powerful signal, said Steve Mack, a representative for the NAACP: that when you ignore the rights of one person in the community, you effectively ignore the rights of everyone in that community.
“When a crime is based on something someone cannot change – sexual orientation, skin color, disability – it doesn’t just injure the person,” Scott Levin, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League office in Colorado, said at the meeting. “It harms an entire community of people who are like that person.”
Wyoming, with few police agencies tracking hate crimes, stands out among all other states, counting the fewest number of bias-related crimes anywhere in the country. Not because the crimes don’t happen, but because – as Kai Wiggins, a policy analyst for the Washington D.C.-based Arab Policy Institute said earlier this month – its data collection is severely lacking, showing no change at a time where hate crimes across the United States have increased by double-digit margins in each of the last three years.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2017 saw 7,175 incidents reported to the FBI, marking the highest year for reported incidents since the agency began collecting data in 1995. At the same time, Wyoming – which lacks mandatory reporting requirements – counted just four incidents.
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Without mandatory reporting, Wyoming already lacks the amount of data sufficient to build a proper understanding of the problem. But the problem is greater than that. According to Wednesday’s report, the rise in reported hate crimes could be due, in part, to a greater willingness to report those crimes to law enforcement when they happen or a greater commitment by law enforcement to prosecute those crimes. However, many at the meeting in Casper earlier this month noted that these trends are likely to have missed Wyoming.
Many marginalized people in Wyoming who have no protections at work or from the government may be afraid to “out themselves,” for fear of deportation or losing their job, some said, and with few police departments trained in dealing with hate crimes, many may have a distrust of law enforcement so strong that it would prevent them from reporting crimes when they happen. That tension that could be massaged with more community involvement in policing, Laramie’s Karlee Provenza, executive director for the Albany County Center for Proper Policing, suggested earlier this month.
In Wednesday’s report, the federal government advocated increasing funding for this type of training, as well as congressional action requiring stricter reporting. But it remains up to the states to enact the proper policy to deal with hate when it happens.
While Nate Martin, executive director of the activist group Better Wyoming, once advocated for hate crime laws in Wyoming, he has since changed his tune, noting at the Casper meeting that enhanced sentencing in one of the only states where prison populations are growing is not the most effective approach. Instead, he advocated for additional civil rights protections in Wyoming law, noting that right now, LGTQ people lack the same protections at work that, say, a Catholic would have.
Public policy shapes societal attitudes, he argued, providing research that shows the introduction of non-discrimination legislation has had a marked impact on the number of hate crimes committed in those jurisdictions. It’s about signaling, he said, rather than deterrence, fighting back against corrosive and hateful rhetoric with a line in the sand that says “this is what Wyoming values.”
Some panelists at that Casper meeting suggested that could be more valuable. Earlier this year in Cheyenne, a number of homophobic and racist posters were plastered around a middle school – part of a trend reported nationally. According to Wednesday’s report, the brunt of hate incidents reported over the last three years occurred in K-12 schools, the majority of which were racially motivated.
Arguably, a hate crime law or a non-discrimination law would not have stopped or prevented this. But something else might have.
“The fact that our youth have this kind of bias just doesn’t come from their own minds – it’s from what’s out there,” said Levin. “We all used to do silly, stupid things in middle school. But I don’t think we ever had anything in our quiver as sharp as these.”