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Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein Delivers Remarks at a Law Enforcement Roundtable Regarding Improving Identification and Reporting of Hate Crimes


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, John, for that introduction.  I am delighted to be here with members of the law enforcement community who are committed to investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. 

The tragic attack at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue two days ago serves as a stark reminder of the need to protect all Americans against hate crimes. In mourning the victims today, we also commit ourselves to preventing future attacks. As President Donald Trump said in condemning the crime, “there must be no tolerance for anti-Semitism in America.”

Within a few hours of the tragedy on Saturday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the filing of federal criminal charges. He reiterated that “[h]atred and violence on the basis of religion can have no place in our society.”

America’s founders prized liberty, and they designed our government to protect it. A tone of tolerance was firmly established by President George Washington in 1790, shortly after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

In a letter to the Jewish population of Newport, Rhode Island, President Washington explained that the United States proudly stands for the principle that “[a]ll possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” In America, Washington believed, freedom to practice a minority religion is a matter of right, and not merely an indulgence from the majority.

Washington wrote as follows: “For happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” Washington expressed his hope that all people “who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

The metaphor Washington used is from the Hebrew Bible, incorporated into the Old Testament. It reflects one of the fundamental goals of government: to protect the safety of the people served by the government.

This roundtable unites two of the Department’s highest priorities: supporting our state and local law enforcement partners; and vigorously prosecuting bias-motivated crimes. Vigilant enforcement of the laws helps to deter violations. Prosecuting criminals is the most salient aspect of law enforcement, but we must always remain focused on our primary goal: to prevent crime from occurring. Our true measure of success is the crimes that do not happen.

I want to begin by thanking the law enforcement officers who are on the front lines in confronting criminals.  Every day, you risk your own safety to prevent violence.  In Pittsburgh, we saw yet another dramatic example of officers who ran straight into the line of fire to protect their fellow citizens.

Every day, America’s law enforcement officers demonstrate unparalleled bravery and sacrifice.  For this, you have the utmost respect and gratitude of the President, the Department of Justice, and the entire nation. Thanks to you, the vile forces of bigotry and hatred will not prevail.

 Today, our distinguished speakers will discuss the best methods to track and combat hate crimes.  But the advice will not come only from the designated speakers. We convened this session as a roundtable, rather than a series of lectures, because the best strategies usually emerge through interactions among law enforcement colleagues. 

We hope to foster relationships that will allow you to partner with the Department to stop hate crimes in your community so that together we can make all neighborhoods safer.

Hate crimes obviously are not a recent development. On this day in 1869, Ku Klux Klan members broke into the home of Abram Colby, a former slave and one of the first African-American members of the Georgia legislature. Frustrated that Colby would not accept bribes or cave to threats, the Klansmen took him to the woods and whipped him for hours, leaving him for dead. He did not die. He went on to testify in Congress about the incident.

Twenty years ago, on October 7, 1998, two perpetrators drove a young man named Matthew Shepard to a remote area, where they beat him, robbed him, and tied him to a fence post outside Laramie, Wyoming.  They killed Shepard because he was gay.  Last Friday, he was interred at the National Cathedral.  I am grateful to Matthew’s parents for joining us today to discuss their important work to prevent hate crimes. Their work stands as a living memorial to their son.   

A few months before Mr. Shepard’s death, white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, killed an African-American man named James Byrd, Jr., for no reason other than the color of his skin. 

Outrage about the deaths of Mr. Shepard and Mr. Byrd inspired the passage of the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crime Prevention Act.  Yesterday marked the 9th anniversary of that law.  Today, we celebrate Congress’s historic decision. 

Since January 2017, the Department of Justice has prosecuted more than 50 defendants for hate crimes.  Many of the cases were filed under the Shepard-Byrd Act.  For example:

  • In 2017, the Department of Justice brought the first prosecution under the Shepard-Byrd Act for the murder of Mercedes Williamson, who was targeted because of gender identity.  The defendant pleaded guilty in federal court in Mississippi and received a sentence of 49 years.
  • In another matter, Attorney General Sessions sent a federal hate crimes attorney to help Iowa state prosecutors try two men for the murder of Kedarie Johnson, a high school student attacked because of gender.  That case resulted in convictions of both defendants in two separate trials.
  • In August 2018, a defendant was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to federal hate crimes and firearm charges for shooting three men at a bar in Olathe, Kansas.  The defendant shot and killed an Indian engineer named Srinivas Kuchibhotla and attempted to kill an Indian co-worker and a third man who came to their aid.  The crime was motivated by bias.

America’s founders believed so strongly in freedom of religion that they enshrined its protection in the Bill of Rights in 1791, the year after President Washington provided assurances to the citizens of Newport.

As Attorney General Sessions remarked at this summer’s religious liberty summit, “Our Founders gave religious expression a double protection in the First Amendment.  Not only do we possess freedom to exercise our beliefs but we also enjoy the freedom of speech.”

The Department prosecutes people who interfere with this fundamental right.  Last summer, a federal jury convicted a defendant on charges relating to the 2017 burning of a mosque in Victoria, Texas.  Witnesses testified about the defendant’s gleeful reaction to seeing a house of worship burn, and about his use of religious slurs.   

The federal complaint filed in Pittsburgh last Saturday alleges 29 violations of federal law, including prohibitions against hate crimes. The complaint alleges that the defendant murdered 11 innocent victims and injured 6 others. Most of the victims were killed in the course of exercising their religious beliefs. The wounded law enforcement officers were seeking to protect the other victims.

Earlier this month, Congress, with the support of the Administration, enacted legislation that strengthens another federal hate crime law and further protects religious freedom.  This law, the Church Arson Prevention Act, protects the rights of individuals at all houses of worship, to exercise their religious beliefs free from force or threats of force. 

The recent amendment widens the law’s protections to include other types of religious property and to punish people who seek to interfere with religious freedom.  In addition to protecting traditional houses of worship, the amended act now protects religious schools, hospitals, and similar institutions.

The Department’s commitment to combat hate crimes extends beyond prosecutions.  Soon after his confirmation, the Attorney General created a Hate Crimes Subcommittee as part of his Task Force on Violent Crime Reduction.  The Department has transformed this Subcommittee into a freestanding, Department-wide Hate Crimes Enforcement and Prevention Initiative, led by the Civil Rights Division. 

The new Initiative coordinates the Department’s efforts to eradicate hate crimes, and facilitates outreach to law enforcement agencies and the public. This roundtable is part of the Initiative. 

Today, the Department of Justice is announcing the launch of a hate crimes website, a one-stop portal with information about all of our resources concerning hate crimes.  Law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and members of the public can readily find information about resources to combat hate crimes.  I encourage you to use the portal and provide feedback about how we can make it an even better resource.

The Initiative also is taking on the challenging task of addressing the gap in hate crime statistics.  According to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Report, 88% of agencies that provide hate crimes data to the FBI reported zero hate crimes in 2016. We are reviewing the accuracy of those reports.   

Moreover, simply because hate crimes are not reported does not mean they are not happening.  We need you to help us understand the reasons that keep victims from reporting hate crimes.  We also need to understand the barriers that law enforcement officers and agencies face in reporting hate crimes to the FBI.  Together, we can discover ways to improve the reporting of hate crimes so that we can more effectively target our resources to the places they are most needed.

To achieve that goal, the National Institute of Justice will grant the University of New Hampshire approximately $840,000 to conduct a national survey of hate crime incidents and victimization.  The study will yield detailed data about hate crimes, analyze local policies that affect hate crime reporting, and identify successful investigation and prosecution strategies.  It will survey 3,000 law enforcement agencies to collect information about rates of reporting hate crime incidents.   A follow-up survey will ask 250 prosecutors about cases that ended in arrests.

The information generated should help us to develop more strategic and targeted approaches to prevent hate crimes.

I am also pleased that the important work you are undertaking will be supported.  In March, Attorney General Sessions announced that a $10 million dollar technical assistance program known as the Collaborative Reform Technical Assistance Center – a partnership with the International Association of Chiefs of Police and eight leading law enforcement leadership and labor organizations – will now include the prosecution and prevention of hate crimes.  For the first time, law enforcement will be able to access critical and innovative education and training resources on hate crimes investigation and prevention.

Before I conclude, I want to thank the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the Community Relations Service for making this roundtable and our new website possible.

The Department is taking many steps to combat hate crimes, but it is the brave men and women of our local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies who are on the front lines of the crime fight. 

We depend on you to implement President Washington’s vision of a nation that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, [and] requires only that [people] who live under its protection … demean themselves as good citizens.”

So let us move forward with a renewed commitment to the principle that every American should enjoy equal protection of the laws, and should be free to live and worship in safety.

I thank you for your service to your communities and to your country.

Hate Crimes
Updated October 29, 2018