SPLC president says Alabama does poor job tracking hate crimes

WSFA 12 News sat down with Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who...
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)
Published: Mar. 1, 2019 at 11:04 AM CST
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - In November, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released its annual statistics on hate crimes in the U.S. The data showed that in 2017 there were 7,175 hate crimes incidents reported by 2,040 agencies.

Though the FBI does not require local law enforcement agencies to produce hate crime data, 16,149 agencies participate in reporting.

WSFA 12 News sat down with Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Alabama-based group is known for tracking right-wing extremism and hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan; the organization released a new report in February on hate groups in the country, revealing a 30 percent increase in the last four years.

Cohen spoke about the tracking of hate crimes in Alabama, saying the state does a particularly poor job of reporting hate crimes. Out of the 334 participating agencies in the state, three submitted reports in 2017.

“Last year, Alabama only reported nine hate crimes, and seven of those crimes were from Hoover and Ozark," he said. "It’s hard for me to believe that Hoover and Ozark are particularly hateful places, compared to the rest of the state.”

Cohen notes the poor reporting may be due to a lack of training in recognizing hate crimes, as well as law enforcement not realizing the importance of identifying them.

“Hate crimes have a unique ability to fracture our communities along the lines of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, lines where we’ve always been fragile, and hate crimes are unique in their ability to send shock waves through the group of people who share the characteristic of the victim," he said. "That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to hate crimes. That’s why it’s so important to count them. And why it’s so important to counter them in all the ways we can.”

Hate crime rates are on the rise, with the number of incidents reported to the FBI up 17 percent from 2016. Three out of five of the crimes were reportedly motivated by race and ethnicity, and religion and sexual orientation were the other two motivators. These rising rates still might not be an accurate depiction of the actual number of crimes committed.

This is at least partly due to law enforcement officials not adding a hate crime enhancement charge when a suspect is arrested. WSFA 12 News polled a few prosecutors, who said they have not added the charge because it is too difficult to prove in a court of law, and when they already have evidence of an assault or murder they don’t see the benefit of charging the suspect with a hate crime.

“I think it’s very infrequent that enhancement’s used, and let me say even if a prosecutor decided not to prosecute a case as a hate crime, it’s important that the crime itself be recognized for what it is,” Cohen said. “Because if it’s not, the community that shares the characteristics of the victim will be justified in thinking that the prosecutors, the police, don’t take it as seriously.”

It’s important to note that though the FBI encourages local authorities to report hate crime data, it is not mandatory to produce it.

Another explanation for under reporting could be fear, as Cohen says some victims of hate crimes may be afraid of reporting them to police.

“For example the LGBT community, there’s a fear of being ridiculed, there’s a fear of being outed,” Cohen said. “If you are an undocumented person, and you’ve been a victim of hate crime, you might be scared to go to the police for fear of being deported.”

In Alabama, hate crime victims in the LGBT community would not be recognized in the state’s report to the FBI. Alabama’s law enhances penalties for a crime "the commission of which was shown beyond a reasonable doubt to have been motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or physical or mental disability.” Sexual orientation is not recognized as a motivator, meaning a number of victims are left out of the data.

Cohen referenced a case in 1999, when Billy Jack Gaither, a gay man, was murdered in Sylacauga. Steven Miller and Charles Monroe Butler were convicted of his murder, admitting they killed Gaither because of his sexual orientation. But the murder was never reported as a hate crime.

“That’s kind of emblematic I think of the problem that we’re facing," Cohen said.

Despite the issues of under reporting, Cohen said he expects to see another increase in hate crimes when the 2018 data comes out in November. He said the increasing numbers should be important to everyone.

“If there are hate crimes that are occurring that target people because of their race, their religion, their sexual orientation, their ethnicity, I think that that’s a concern for all of us, because it tells us something about the health of the community,” he said. "All of us want to live in a place that is not only free from violence but is free from any form of discrimination or unfairness. That’s what Alabamians aspire to.”

When looking at the rising trend of hate, Cohen lays at least part of the blame at the feet of President Donald Trump, saying he has energized the radical right. He referenced the weeks before the 2018 midterms as a particularly ugly time.

“We saw someone, the pipe bomber, target those people, those institutions that Trump had demonized,” he said. “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 unfortunately we saw 11 brave souls be killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue by a man who was obsessed with the idea that there was an invading caravan.”

Cohen said Trump used the kind of language that motivated the suspects in their crimes.

“Quite frankly ever since he came down that escalator in the building that bore his name, he ran a campaign based on race, xenophobia, the like, and as a president, he’s brought people from hate groups, hate group sympathizers into his administration to shape public policy," Cohen said. "I think the country is going to have to live with the damage for many years to come.”

The president and his administration have denied any connection to hate groups.

The SPLC has seen some controversy recently, with some organizations filing lawsuits to fight being labeled as hate groups by the SPLC.

Copyright 2019 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.