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On the Road in Peoria: Combating Hate, One Community at a Time

Matt Nosanchuk from the Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights describes ongoing efforts to implement and enforce the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

In the United States of America, no one should have to live in fear of being physically attacked because of what they look like, where they come from, what they believe, who they are, or who they love.  That’s why President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law on October 28, 2009, adding federal protections against violent crimes that are based on the gender, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation of the victim to the existing protections for hate crimes based on race, color, religion, or national origin.  While 45 states have hate crimes laws, only 12 states and the District of Columbia have laws that cover sexual orientation and gender identity and 31 states have laws that cover only sexual orientation.  This landmark federal legislation – the first federal civil rights law to specify protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity – was first introduced more than a decade ago and fills a critical need. 

From the time that the Shepard-Byrd Act became law, the Justice Department has been working to promote safer and more tolerant communities by implementing and enforcing the new law.  We have brought seven cases charging eleven defendants, and we have open investigations of other incidents throughout the nation.  Also, as a result of our collaboration with local law enforcement, we have assisted in investigations involving sexual orientation that have resulted in state hate crimes prosecutions.  In addition to prosecutions, the Justice Department’s implementation efforts have included holding training conferences to bring federal, state, and local law enforcement together with community stakeholders to educate them about the new law and the need for collaboration in its enforcement.  In partnership with the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and the Department’s Community Relations Service, we have conducted dozens of conferences that have trained thousands of law enforcement officers and community stakeholders.  We have been joined in our hate crimes prevention outreach and training by Matthew Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, and by the police Chief from Laramie, Wyoming, Dave O’Malley, who oversaw the investigation into Matthew’s murder.  Their vivid and heartfelt accounts have underscored for conference attendees the unique nature of hate crimes, the devastating impact they have on families and communities, and the importance of the Shepard-Byrd Act.

On January 10, I participated in a training conference in Peoria, Illinois that was jointly sponsored by the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois, Jim Lewis; Easter Seals of Peoria; and Illinois Central College.  The conference focused on hate crimes and bullying and harassment of students in school.  It featured powerful testimonials from victims of hate crimes and bullying as well as an address from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who has been a strong ally in our hate crime prevention efforts and joined us in co-hosting a hate crimes training conference that was held at the LGBT community center in Chicago last fall. 

I had the privilege of joining U.S. Attorney Lewis and representatives of the FBI and Community Relations Service in representing the Justice Department at the conference.  Many of the people we heard from emphasized the need for greater trust and collaboration among law enforcement and community stakeholders in order to ensure that crimes get reported and that local law enforcement responds appropriately.  Concerning bullying and harassment, several conference participants called on the need to engage school districts so that they acknowledge their obligation to respond to severe, persistent, and unlawful bullying and harassment and take steps to ensure safe and tolerant schools for all students.

Visiting communities across the country allows us to provide members of targeted or high-risk populations with the information they need to respond effectively when hate crimes occur.  It also promotes increased dialogue between law enforcement and affected communities, especially the LGBT community.  We have strengthened the resolve of law enforcement at the federal, state, and local levels to pursue vigorous enforcement and effective prevention and reassured vulnerable communities that when hate-fueled violence occurs, they have committed partners in law enforcement.

 Matt Nosanchuk is Senior Counselor to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice.