A white man travels to one business and kills several workers. He then kills more people at a similar business.
Six of the eight people he killed are Asian women, leading many people to call for him to be charged under the new state hate crime law. Authorities resist, saying they aren't sure that racial bias motivated the man's crimes.
That's the situation unfolding in the Atlanta area in Georgia, right now. But there is often a gap between public opinion and law enforcement when people believe a hate crime has been committed, whether against LGBTQ people, racial minorities or Jewish people.
Hate crimes and hate murders are rising across the U.S., but long term polling data suggests that most Americans are horrified by bias-motivated violence. They also support hate crime legislation, an effort to deter such attacks.
Yet officials often resist the quick classification of incidents as a hate crime. Hate crimes have precise qualities, which must be met to satisfy legal requirements. And even when police and prosecutors believe the elements of a hate crime are present, such crimes can be difficult to prove in court.
Hate crimes are crimes motivated by bias on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity. In some states, gender, age and gender identity are also included. Hate crime laws have been passed by 47 states and the federal government since the 1980s, when activists first began to press state legislatures to recognize the role of bias in violence against minority groups. Today, only Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming do not have hate crime laws.
In order to be charged as a hate crime, attacks — whether assault, killings or vandalism — must be directed at individuals because of the prohibited biases. Hate crimes, in other words, punish motive; the prosecutor must convince the judge or jury that the victim was targeted because of their race, religion, sexual orientation or other protected characteristic.
If the defendant is found to have acted with bias motivation, hate crimes often add an additional penalty to the underlying charge. Charging people with a hate crime, then, presents additional layers of complexity to what may otherwise be a straightforward case for prosecutors. Bias motivation can be hard to prove, and prosecutors can be reluctant to take cases that they may not win in court.
It can and does happen, though. In June 2020, Shepard Hoehn placed a burning cross and a sign with racial slurs and epithets facing the construction site where his new neighbor, who is Black, was building a house.
The first use of the term "hate crime" in federal legislation was the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990. This was not a criminal statute but rather a data-gathering requirement that mandated that the U.S. attorney general collect data on crimes that "evidenced prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity."
Soon, states began passing their own laws recognizing bias crimes. But hate crime legislation has not led to as many charges and convictions as activists may have hoped.
Law enforcement struggle to identify hate crime and prosecute the offenders. Even though 47 states have hate crime laws, 86.1 percent of law enforcement agencies reported to the FBI that not a single hate crime had occurred in their jurisdiction in 2019, according to the latest FBI data collected.
In the late 1990s I studied a specialized police hate crime unit in a city I called, for the purposes of anonymity, "Center City." My study revealed that those detectives could distinguish non-hate crimes — for instance, when the perpetrator angrily used the N-word in a fight — from cases that are truly hate crimes, as when the perpetrator used it during a targeted attack on a Black person.
Without the right training and organizational structure, officers are unclear about common markers of bias motivation, and tend to assume that they must go to extraordinary lengths to figure out why suspects committed the crime.
"We don't have time to psychoanalyze people," said the same veteran police officer in 1996.
All this means that perpetrators of hate crimes may not be caught and can reoffend, further victimizing communities that are meant to be protected by hate crime laws.
Hate crime laws reflect American ideals of fairness, justice and equity. But if crimes motivated by bias aren't reported, well investigated, charged or brought to trial, it matters little what state law says.