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Acting Assistant Attorney General Thomas Wheeler Delivers Remarks at the Anti-Defamation League National Leadership Summit on Hate Crimes


Washington, DC
United States

It is an honor to have the opportunity to speak you today. I have had the privilege over the last month of working with Jonathan Greenblatt on hate crimes generally and the JCC threats case in particular. I cannot overstate the importance of ADL in its advocacy and leadership on hate crimes issues—for the Jewish community, of course, but for all communities victimized by hate crimes.


I want to echo what FBI Director James Comey told you yesterday. We value you as partners in the fight against hate crimes. From your community education efforts to get victims to report hate crimes, to working to improve data collection, to providing technical assistance to help places of worship reduce their exposure to hate violence, you provide an invaluable service to us all.   So thank you.


I also want to take a moment to thank Director Comey and the men and women of the FBI for their tireless investigation of the JCC threats, using old fashioned shoe-leather and sophisticated computer techniques to lead us to a man we have charged with federal crimes in Florida and Georgia. They took a serious crime seriously and ran it down to ground, and we are grateful.


The JCC threats remind us of why it is so important for the FBI to prioritize the investigation of hate crimes, and for the Civil Rights Division to prioritize their prosecution.


First, these are crimes that are meant to intimidate and terrorize whole communities. The JCC case shows how disruptive these crimes can be by instilling fear in communities.


Second, these are crimes that are very often designed specifically to deny people their basic civil rights. Last month we obtained a 15-month sentence against a man in Bakersfield, California who fired a shotgun toward a Latino family as they stood in their front yard, and yelled for them to move out. Fair housing rights mean little if people exercising those rights are met with violence. Likewise in the United States we rightly treasure religious liberty. But that liberty means little if we cannot gather for worship, or simply walk down the street, without fear of attack because of our faith.


And third, hate crimes are a priority because hate crimes are violent crimes, and any serious effort to combat violent crime in America must include hate crimes. The cases handled by the Civil Rights Division just in 2017 illustrate this: the conviction of a Tennessee man in February for plotting to attack a mosque and Muslim community in upstate New York; the sentencing of an Idaho man April 27 for beating a gay man to death last year; the sentencing of Dylan Roof to death in January for murdering 9 African American worshipers during a Bible study in Charleston; and unfortunately there are more in just the short time I have led the Civil Rights Division.


Attorney General Sessions recognizes this, and has made fighting hate crimes a top priority. When he rolled out his Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety at the end of March, he made hate crimes one of the pillars of this effort.  He said


We will not tolerate threats or acts of violence targeting any person or community in this country on the basis of their religious beliefs or background. Accordingly, the Hate Crimes Subcommittee will develop a plan to appropriately address hate crimes to better protect the rights of all Americans.

This echoed the remarks of President Trump in his first address to Congress, before there was an arrest in the JCC case, in which he said:


Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our Nation's path toward civil rights and the work that still remains. Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.


President Trump re-asserted his resolve to confront hate-based violence at the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Day of Remembrance event in the Capitol Rotunda, where he stated “This is my pledge to you: We will confront anti-Semitism. We will stamp out prejudice, we will condemn hatred, and we will bear witness and we will act.” So the commitment to combating hate crimes by this Department of Justice is unflagging.


One of the key subcommittees of the Task Force is the Hate Crimes Subcommittee, which I chair and which includes representatives from multiple DOJ components.

Our mandate is to improve how we identify, investigate, and prosecute hate crimes; to improve training and outreach on hate crimes to local law enforcement and affected communities; and to do a better job collecting data on hate crimes. As a group that for many years has worked on improving data collection, you at ADL know well that we cannot accurately attack a problem unless we fully understand it.


The third week of June, the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety will hold a summit on violent crime. The following week, on June 29, the Hate Crimes Subcommittee will hold an additional one-day summit focusing solely on identifying, prosecuting, and preventing hate crimes.  This summit will allow DOJ officials to discuss with experts, community group representatives, and state and local law enforcement partners how best to reduce the incidence of hate crimes in America.


The terms summit, however, should not be read literally. I do not want this to be the pinnacle of our efforts in partnership with groups like ADL and local law enforcement agencies, after which we simply coast downhill. Rather, we look forward to rolling up our sleeves with ADL and other partners around the country, and doing the hard work together.


Thank you.

Civil Rights
Hate Crimes
Updated May 17, 2017