The U.S. Justice Department defended its record of combating hate crime under President Donald Trump on Tuesday, saying it remains committed to prosecuting crimes motivated by race, religion and other biases.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on religiously motivated hate crimes, Eric Treene, the Justice Department’s special counsel for religious discrimination, said the agency had successfully prosecuted a number of hate crimes in recent months and was pursuing other cases.
“The attorney general [Jeff Sessions] has made fighting violent crime one of his top priorities,” Treene said. “Addressing hate crimes must be part of our national effort to reduce violent crime.”
In February, Sessions announced the creation of the department’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which includes a hate crimes subcommittee. The panel will hold a one-day summit with experts, community organizations and law enforcement agencies to discuss “how best to reduce the incidence of hate crimes in America,” Treene said.
In addition, he said, the department has vigorously pursued cases under all federal hate crime statutes, including bringing charges against a teenager for making threatening calls against Jewish Community Center locations and another man for threatening Muslim grocery owners in Fort Myers, Florida.
He did not say how many hate crime cases the department had opened since Trump’s January 20 inauguration.
Brian Levin, a criminologist and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino, said putting hate crime under the rubric of violent crime “isn’t very helpful.”
The FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity.” Though sharply down overall since 2000, hate crime against religious minorities and others has risen in recent years. According to the FBI’s most recent data, hate crime rose 7 percent to 5,850 incidents in 2015 from 5,479 incidents in 2014.
Up 6 percent in 2016
Data collected by the California State center show that hate crime rose 6 percent last year and has continued to grow in several metropolitan areas in 2017. According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents, including harassment, bullying, vandalism and threats, rose by one-third in 2016 and 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017.
But the FBI data are thought to understate the extent of hate crime. That is in part because the data are based on voluntary submissions by police departments and partly because victims in immigrant and minority communities are afraid to report crime. Of the 15,000 police departments that participated in the data collection, 88 percent reported no hate crime, said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.
There was something of a pattern to anti-Muslim hate crimes during much of the presidential campaign: There was a 67 percent increase for all of 2015, which included not only spikes after terror attacks but also an 87.5 percent increase in the days following Trump’s initial Muslim ban proposal announcement in December 2015. Then there was another apparent jump in many jurisdictions immediately following the election.
“Our research shows that statements by political leadership correlate to increases and reductions in hate crimes at critical times, like after terror attacks, and the committee rightly brought up the importance of moral leadership,” Levin said.
Trump was widely criticized during the presidential campaign for making comments about Muslims and other minorities that critics said led to an escalation of hate crimes.
Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, a sharp Trump critic on the Judiciary Committee, accused the administration of failing to “speak clearly in opposition to bias and hate.” And he questioned Trump’s decision to appoint Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, a controversial conservative website, as his White House strategist.
Treene sidestepped questions about Bannon and instead said that he was “encouraged” by Trump’s February speech to Congress in which he vowed to root out “hate and evil in all its forms.”
Asked whether the Justice Department under Trump had changed its policy on hate crime, Treene said, “No, the attorney general has been consistent and strong in his message that hate crime is violent crime and we need to do everything we can in our prosecutorial toolbox to fight this problem.”