Remarks by Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Law Day Celebration
Martin Luther King Memorial Library
May 4, 1999
Thank you for such a warm welcome. I am delighted to be a part of your Law Day Celebration. I know that one of the Library's main objectives is to sponsor lectures and programs for our community, and I commend you for your efforts to enrich and educate us all. By presidential proclamation, Law Day is celebrated annually on May 1. Each year, we at the Department of Justice select a Law Day theme. This May, we are recognizing law day by reaffirming our pledge of "justice for all." If we are to live up to this ideal, we must start by protecting all victims and all communities. Eliminating hate crimes and eliminating bigotry and bitterness are among our most important challenges. There is never an excuse for violence against innocent persons. But these kinds of attacks committed because the victims look different, practice a different faith, or have a different sexual orientation threaten America's most cherished ideals. They represent an attack not just on the individual victim but also on the victim's community. And their impact is broader because they send a message of hate. They are intended to create fear. Tragically, bias-related crimes and the hatred that fuels them remain a fundamental problem in our society. My experience has been that the virus of hatred has spread far beyond its historical roots of racism. As a former United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, I found that Asian merchants were often targeted for robberies and assaults not only because they were shopkeepers, but also because they were Korean or Chinese or Vietnamese. The brutality of some of these attacks seemed at least partly motivated by misplaced resentment against their success, and rank prejudice against their nationalities. My office also witnessed an alarming number of violent incidents against individuals based on their sexual orientation. In one case, a man approached two individuals sitting on a park bench and repeatedly asked them in a loud voice, "Are you homosexual?" He then picked up a stick and broken bottles and started beating one of the them. The defendant proudly testified at trial that "When homosexuals die, they will burn in hell." These incidents and other hate crimes like them are not just a law enforcement problem. They are a problem for the entire community: for our schools, for our religious institutions, our civic organizations and each one of us as individuals. And when we come together to respond to these crimes, we help build communities that are safer, stronger and more tolerant. Our first step, is to gain a better understanding of the problem. The data we have now is inadequate. As a result of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, enacted in 1990, the FBI began collecting information from law enforcement agencies around the country. In 1991, the first year that the FBI reported its findings, 2,700 law enforcement agencies reported 4,560 hate crimes. In 1997, the last year for which we have statistics, 11,211 law enforcement agencies participated in the data collection program and reported 8,049 hate crime incidents. These numbers alone are a significant concern. 8,049 hate crime incidents represent almost one hate crime incident per hour. One incident per hour. But we know that even this disturbing number significantly underestimates the true level of hate crimes. Many victims do not report these crimes. Police departments do not always recognize hate crimes. Many don't collect any hate crime data. And about 80 percent of those that do, even some in large metropolitan areas, report few or no hate crimes in their jurisdictions, even when most observers conclude a larger problem exists. There are many ways to improve our data collection. First and foremost, increased hate crime training for law enforcement officials is essential. Police officers must know how to identify the signs of a hate crime. What might appear to some as a crime like so many others, upon investigation can turn out to be motivated by bias. About a year and a half ago, the Department of Justice launched a multi-faceted Hate Crimes Initiative. Improving data collection and enhancing law enforcement training are strong components. To meet these goals, we recently commissioned a study by Northeastern University to survey some 2,500 law enforcement agencies in order to better understand and improve upon police reporting practices, and we brought together state police academies, police chiefs, state attorneys general and others around the country to develop uniform curricula for hate crime training. As a result of these efforts, the Department now has available three law enforcement training curricula on hate crimes -- for patrol officers, investigators, and a mixed audience. I am very proud of these curricula. They offer each level of officer an "A to Z" handbook for approaching hate crimes as well as a general overview of the topic. Moreover, we have held three regional "train-the-trainer" sessions to instruct qualified trainers on the ins-and-outs of these new curricula. In each state, there is at least one team of three trainers available to teach these curricula. But increased opportunities for law enforcement training are only one piece of the reporting puzzle. We must encourage victims to report incidents of hate crime. The reasons for underreporting of hate crime by victims are varied. In some immigrant communities, there is a fear that reporting crimes may lead to reprisals. Language and cultural barriers impede reporting. Many gay and lesbian crime victims do not report incidents to the police because they fear mistreatment or disclosure of their sexual orientation. Too often the victim is the forgotten person in our criminal justice system. Throughout the system, we have to make the process understandable for all, so that victims are encouraged to report the crime. Our local working groups, which I will turn to in a few moments, can help in this endeavor. Identification and reporting are, of course, not a complete answer. We must also ensure that potential hate crimes are investigated thoroughly, prosecuted swiftly and punished appropriately. One thing we know for certain, is that we are most effective when we work together. Just as hate crimes are a community problem, they require community solutions. The centerpiece of the Department's Hate Crime Initiative is the formation of local working groups in United States Attorneys' districts around the country. These task forces are hard at work bringing together the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's office, local law enforcement, community leaders and educators to coordinate our response to hate crimes. The groups are assessing the hate crime problem in their local areas and developing specific strategies to respond to the problem. While local law enforcement has the primary role in responding to and pursuing these crimes, federal law enforcement can provide additional resources and can assist with training. And by involving community organizations in these working groups, we are enhancing our ability to prosecute these crimes. Quite simply we are more effective when we enjoy the trust and support of the community. Community support makes it easier to uncover information, enlist witnesses to testify, and solve cases. But involving the community is not just about effective enforcement, it's about better prevention efforts. As a United States Attorney, I found an amazing thing I learned that prosecutors feel better about themselves and their jobs if they get involved at the front end of these crimes before they occur rather than waiting on the sidelines to clean up the mess afterwards. As United States Attorney, my office launched one of the first community prosecution efforts known as the "Fifth District Community Prosecution Pilot Project." Under this initiative, 19 prosecutors were given sole responsibility for handling criminal cases out of the Fifth District. They were charged with identifying problems in the Fifth District that breed crime, bringing together the key players who could solve those problems, and following through to ensure that the job was done right. To do this they had to know the community, which meant walking the streets, talking to shopkeepers and attending community functions. Two of the 19 were physically located full-time in a satellite office set up in the District. We found that prosecutors were lining up to take the Fifth District assignment. It was one of the hardest assignments to get in the U.S. Attorney's Office. These prosecutors understood that reaching out to the community is an incredible tool for enforcement and prevention. As many of you are aware, there is federal jurisdiction for prosecuting hate crimes, and we have made these cases a top priority. While most hate crimes are investigated and prosecuted at the state level, we do want to make sure that federal jurisdiction to prosecute hate crimes covers everything that it should. Over the past few years, we have taken a comprehensive look at one of our principal federal hate crime laws and decided that it needs to be strengthened. To this end, we proposed to Congress last year and reintroduced again this year, a bill that would expand our ability to prosecute. Current law prohibits certain hate crimes committed on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. Under the proposed Hate Crimes Prevention Act, federal law would be expanded to cover acts committed on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, or disability. The Act will also remedy a second deficiency in current law. Right now, we must prove not only that a defendant committed an offense because of race, color, religion, or national origin, but also because of the victim's participation in one of six narrowly defined "federally protected activities." This extra intent requirement, which was written into the law some 30 years ago, is neither appropriate nor necessary in our modern society. And it can lead to truly bizarre results. For example, federal jurisdiction will probably be upheld if a racially-motivated assault occurs on a public sidewalk. But we may not be able to bring a federal charge if the same attack occurs in a private parking lot across the street. And if a crime takes place in a convenience store, our jurisdiction over places of entertainment may not be triggered unless there is a video game inside the store. Federal jurisdiction should not hinge upon such unnecessary distinctions. This new bill is a good fix. Last month, in a Roosevelt Room ceremony, President Clinton joined with a bipartisan group of legislators to urge its swift passage. I am pleased to join my voice with his to offer my strong support of this bill. But the battle must be fought not just in the law books, but in our hearts as well. We must look at the root causes of hate crime. Intolerance often begins not with a violent act, but with a small indignity or bigoted remark. To move forward as one community, we must work against the stereotypes and prejudices that spawn these actions. We must foster understanding and respect in our homes and our neighborhoods; in our schools and on our college campuses. Hate is learned. It can be unlearned. We must engage our schools in the crucial task of teaching our children moral values and social responsibility. Educators can play a vital role in preventing the development of the prejudice and stereotyping that leads to hate crime. I am pleased that the Department will be assisting a new partnership announced last month by the President in its efforts to develop a program for middle school students on tolerance and diversity. Americans must learn to communicate with each other. Not in advertisement cliches and 30-second TV sound-bites, but in honest words of thought and feeling. We must learn to solve problems together. We must start early in our schools teaching our children how to resolve conflicts and disagreements without knives, guns and fists. Where does hatred start? Hatred starts oftentimes in someone who feels alone, confused and unloved. Hatred starts with someone who believes he has no control over his life and who lashes out at others. I look at a young perpetrator and I know that at so many points along the way, we could have intervened and helped him take a different path. We have to invest in our children. We have to help them grow in strength, in positive values, and in respect and love for others. When you leave this lecture today, your work begins. Pledge to go back to your communities and continue this effort. Put on the armor of faith and fortitude. Your courage, your commitment to this cause, will be needed in the years ahead.