State lawmakers voted Tuesday to pursue expanded hate crimes protections in Wyoming, after hearing impassioned testimony from residents and state leaders who say tougher measures are needed to safeguard vulnerable groups.
Based on narrow votes from the Joint Judiciary Committee, the Legislative Service Office will draft two bills: One would require law enforcement to report hate crimes. The other would extend protections to more groups.
“I want a starting point to move forward,” said Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson.
The debate over hate crimes legislation included a critical question: Does Wyoming already have a law on the books? The answer depends on whom you ask.
National groups like the Brennan Center for Justice do not classify Wyoming as having a hate crime law, while the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wyoming argues that state does possess one.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that Wyoming does have a hate crime statute,” said Sabrina King, the campaign consultant for the ACLU in the state.
The statute King referred to is 6-9-102, which states that “No person shall be denied the right to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness or the necessities of life because of race, color, sex, creed or national origin.” Violating the statute is a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of six months, a fine of no more than $750, or both.
The statute does not require law enforcement to report hate crimes and does not protect all of the vulnerable populations, according to testimony at Tuesday’s hearing.
Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, who does not serve on the committee, advocated for an entirely new hate crime bill. There was some brief talk of taking that approach, as opposed to amending the existing statute, but that attempt failed.
“It did not go as well as I wanted,” Sweeney said. “But we’ll keep on working.”
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, introduced the motion to draft an entirely new hate crime bill.
“I was surprised the majority of the committee wasn’t even at the base level lets get something on the books,” he said. “It might not have gone the way I wanted, but I’m optimistic,” he added.
There was also slew of public comment at Tuesday’s meeting, most of it passionate and emotional.
“That’s how Wyoming handles hate crime. You’re soft on it, real soft,” said Jimmy Simmons, vice president of the Pikes Peak Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“You can not discount a police chief as not being a racist, you can not discount a judge as being a racist, you can not discount a legislators as being a racist,” he later added.
Through tears, one mother told lawmakers about an experience her and her lesbian daughter had last week. The woman said her daughter and a couple other friends were surrounded by teenagers and called homophobic slurs on Thursday. The woman eventually arrived and said the teenagers got violent. The woman told the committee that the police who arrived on the scene “did not offer any protection to escort us to safety” and the woman, her daughter and their friends were later assaulted and robbed again by the same group of people.
The woman said her daughter tried to kill herself on Sunday and is now in the hospital.
“She tried to take her own life because there are not protections for these kids. They cannot protect themselves,” she said. “We need to do better, there need to be laws that specifically cater to this.”
The Star-Tribune is aware of the woman’s identity, but did not include it because her daughter is a minor.
Other said there were economic reasons to pursue new hate crimes protections.
Dale Steenbergen, president and CEO of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce, said that he’s heard that some businesses do not want to move to Wyoming because it is believed that the state does not have a hate crime law at all.
“Companies are more socially aware than they ever have been,” Steenbergen said.
Zwonitzer tried to push his motion by emphasizing to colleagues that Wyoming is missing out on business because the hate crime legislation is not robust enough.
“I do not feel the committee fully realizes how other Americans continue to see Wyoming, and by not having some kind of a bias motivated crimes statute, it continues that perception,” he told the Star-Tribune following the meeting.
Amber Pollock, a Casper city council member and local business owner who is involved in LGBTQ issues, testified that members of the LGBTQ community here do not feel safe living their lives to the fullest extent. But when the Star-Tribune spoke to her following the meeting, she struck a hopeful tone.
“I’m excited to see that there’s drafts on several of the topics that were discussed today that are going to be coming back before the committee so at least the conversation can continue,” she said.
Wyoming has recorded 13 hate crimes since 2015. However, it’s suspected that actual number of crimes is under reported.
Follow state politics reporter Victoria Eavis on Twitter @Victoria_Eavis