Measure of Hate: Assessing hate crimes in Alabama

Measure of Hate: Assessing hate crimes in Alabama

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Less than a century separates Alabama from its dark history of hate and racial violence. In the modern era, hate is still prevalent, but woefully undocumented.

The Department of Justice says more than half of the nation’s hate crimes go unreported. Alabama’s numbers, too, are staggering. In 2017, only nine incidents of hate crimes in Alabama were reported to the FBI by three agencies.

“The reality is the FBI only counts like 7,000 hate crimes every year,” stated Richard Cohen, President of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Alabama does a particularly bad job of reporting hate crimes.”

While Alabama isn't alone, Cohen referenced the state of Connecticut's work in reporting biased-related crime, which reported 111 incidents in 2017.

“Connecticut’s a much smaller state than Alabama, if you do the math what it tells you is that you’d be 12 times more likely to be victimized by hate in Connecticut than Alabama,” Cohen hypothesized. “We all know that’s not true; it’s just a function of Alabama doing a very poor job of reporting hate crimes, and Connecticut doing a good job.”

WSFA 12 News sat down with Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who spoke about the tracking of hate crimes in Alabama.
WSFA 12 News sat down with Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who spoke about the tracking of hate crimes in Alabama. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

Cohen has dedicated his career to advocating for victims of hate. He says the problem is two-fold, and great intimidation still exists to make the report.

“And even the crimes that are reported often aren’t counted as hate crimes,” Cohen explained.

The FBI cannot compel local agencies to report this data. WSFA 12 News learned during our investigation that surrounding agencies use different policies in reporting data. While some agencies like Prattville Police Department report every incidence, regardless of whether a criminal investigation is launched, others require a crime report, charge, or even conviction.

Over the last decade, the Prattville Police Department reported seven instances of hate crimes, the Montgomery Police Department reported one and Wetumpka Police Department reported zero.

During that same period, Alabama has reported an average of 11 hate crimes annually, with the exception of 2011, where 50 agencies reported 83 incidences of hate. Those who compile the numbers for the state didn’t have an answer for the spike and other agencies questioned whether software and faulty electronic tabulations are to blame.

“I think there’s a lot of hate in Alabama, a lot of hate in the United States,” stated Attorney George Beck.

For Beck, the state’s sordid history with hate goes beyond statistics. Beck prosecuted the Klan for nearly a decade as Deputy Attorney General and later served as U.S. Attorney, increasing his district’s civil rights caseload by 200 percent.

“Most of these bombings that occurred around a 20 year period,” he explained. “There was forty something bombings. It was very intimidating to black attorneys, black professionals or anyone who wanted to integrate a neighborhood - they were going to find a stick of dynamite in their yard. It became a matter of routine, in fact one place was called Dynamite Hill.”

According to Beck, mainstream rhetoric is one of the best predictors of bias-related crime.

“It gives a feeling of confidence to those who feel that way but may be afraid to take action and may be alone in their feelings - and see they have company,” said Beck.

While working in the AG’s Office, Beck watched the reaction to the incendiary rhetoric by public officials.

“You have Governor Wallace saying segregation today, tomorrow, and forever, and then you have the public officials who justify the field workers in what they are doing,” Beck explained. “That’s one of the things about the Klan bombing the church. They were tired of Wallace’s speech. They were tired of talk. They wanted action. The hate turned into action and caused the death of those four little girls.”

Cohen says the present-day dog whistle is no different.

“The period before the midterms was particularly ugly,” Cohen stated. “We had someone, the pipe bomber, target those people, those institutions that Trump demonized. We saw someone basically trying to repeat a Dylan Roof incident, he tried to get into a church in Louisville and then killed two people in a Kroger parking lot, and then we saw 11 brave souls killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue by a man who was obsessed with the idea that there was an invading caravan.”

Alabama’s incidents of bias are generally racially motivated. Beck says he's not surprised, but believes the landscape is rapidly changing.

“We have different ideas, elements, religions, different people coming into America all the time and people don’t like change, don’t respect change, and even fight change,” he stated.

When asked if the hate crime or hate rhetoric had changed since those bombings, Beck said, “In some cases they are worse, especially among religion and the way we treat Hispanics.” Beck said the same groups the perpetuated hate against racial minorities are now espousing the same action on the LGBTQ community. In Alabama, hate crimes motivated by gender or sexual orientation are not included in the state’s hate crime statute.

The number of hate-motivated crimes that go to state court are even lower in Alabama. The state’s hate crime statute is an enhancement, and most prosecutors say the burden is often impossible to prove.

“If you have a bomb thrown in a church why do you need to prove the Baptists didn’t like the Methodists,” Beck questioned. “That isn’t necessary.”

While serving as U.S. Attorney, Beck said there was an emphasis on civil rights cases, but he often felt handicapped due to the process of trying a case as a hate crime.

“The Civil Rights Division controlled, set the tone, and had to give permission on any civil rights investigation,” he explained. “You are hampered from the beginning.”

While the numbers are lacking, WSFA found droves of stories and videos in our archives about the Klan, cross burnings, and graffiti linked to the degradation of religious groups.

Cohen believes everyone should be concerned by what’s behind the lack of data and the silence.

“Hate crimes are unique in their ability to send shock waves through the group of people who share the same characteristic of the victim,” he stated. “That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to hate crimes, that’s why it’s so important to count them and counter them in all ways we can.”

The AG’s Office declined to comment on this issue due to scheduling conflicts.

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