Feb 13, 2008

further variations in hate crime enforcement

Regarding the March / April LD resolution, an affirmative might argue that hate crime laws are unjust because they are selectively or prejudicially enforced--a vicious irony, initially discussed here.

For further evidence, we can turn to several sources. First, in "Hate Crime Reporting as a Successful Social Movement Outcome," found in the December 2003 issue of American Sociological Review, Rory McVeigh et. al. note a crucial disparity:
Perhaps the most formidable barriers to effective hate crime enforcement and reporting are the difficulties that law enforcement agents face in determining whether an event qualifies as a hate crime incident. As Bell (2002) describes it, "Bias crimes require police officers to examine not only what happened, but also why it happened. Furthermore, the search for what happened is complicated by contested stories and by victims who are sometimes afraid to acknowledge the bias nature of the crime for fear of revictimization" (p. 13). The FBI does offer guidelines to local agencies on how to identify hate crime incidents. It advises agencies to adopt a two-tier approach in which the police officer on the scene makes an initial determination as to whether bias motivation is suspected. A second officer, or a special unit that has more expertise on hate crimes, then evaluates the case to determine whether it qualifies as a hate crime.... [T]he FBI suggests, rather than mandates, the two-tiered process. Most police departments do not have specialized units for enforcing hate crime laws or for collecting hate crime statistics (Bell 2002:28; Jenness and Grattet 2001).
The proper enforcement of hate crime laws is hindered by too many intervening factors, including, but not limited to... [my summary]
  • The individual police officer's enthusiasm, or lack thereof, for reporting hate crimes as hate crimes.
  • Lack of supervisors' commitment to hate crime reporting
  • Lack of training in hate crime recognition
  • Political disincentives to report hate crimes, including a fear of having one's community labeled intolerant
  • Political pressure to report hate crimes out of a fear of otherwise appearing intolerant
  • Officers' personal beliefs that hate crime laws are immoral or illegitimate
The training issue is a special concern. As a report [pdf] by the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research shows,
The vast majority of patrol officers will not see a bias crime in any given year. In Maryland County for example--a department recognized for its early attention to bias crime reporting--there are roughly fifty-five bias crimes per year over the last few years. With close to 900 responding officers, about one officer in twenty would respond to a bias crime incident in a given year. Since the typical patrol officer will rarely encounter a bias crime, his or her experience with these crimes is limited, making it more difficult for officers to differentiate what is and what is not a bias motivated crime.
This problem is compounded by the difficulty of determining--and isolating--bias as intent. Investigating bias crime enforcement in the field, CCJPR researchers discovered that
[a]bsent a clear bias motivation, officers generally were reluctant to make judgments about crimes, as one officer explained: "we don't like to split hairs." While officers and police personnel we interviewed often agreed that apparently clear bias motivated crimes, such as a cross burning or a crime perpetrated by a bias group, were indeed bias crimes, little consensus existed regarding incidents that displayed other possible motivations. Following an example of a hypothetical incident, officers would rhetorically ask, "Is that a bias crime?" in an attempt to make the researchers aware that appropriate classification was far too difficult.
What does this all mean? When combined with the uncomfortable fact that hate crime punishments disproportionately fall on the very groups they are meant to protect, the argument takes shape. If justice means equal protection of the laws, then the dubious enforcement and disproportionate punishment of hate crime laws is clearly unjust.


LD n00b said...

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that that entire list can be applied to any controversile law on the books.

Jim Anderson said...

ld n00b, absolutely. I see this argument as part of a case, or a block, but not a case unto itself.