What’s a Hate Crime?

Police reports can play an essential role in prosecuting hate crimes.

In recent years, most jurisdictions have established a separate hate crime category. These are criminal acts such as murder, arson, vandalism, and other crimes against people and property that are partly or wholly motivated by bias. Demonstrating hatred towards minorities, gays, Jews, or other groups is not sufficient: The bias must be the motivation for the crime.

Prosecuting a hate crime can be difficult: Hate in itself is not a crime, and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects free speech even when it is offensive.

Another problem is that some alleged hate crimes are actually hoaxes. In 2009, for example, McCain supporter Ashley Todd falsely claimed that she’d been robbed by a Barack Obama supporter who cut a B on her right cheek. Investigators noted that the cuts were superficial, Todd refused medical attention, and – most telling – the “B” was backward, as if it had been done in front of a mirror.

If you suspect a hate crime, be sure to record details in your report that will be helpful to the prosecutor. Here are some possibilities:

  • Relevant information about the offender’s and victim’s race, religion, ethnic/national origin, sexual orientation, or disability
  • Suspect’s oral statements indicating bias
  • Bias-related drawings, markings, symbols, or graffiti
  • Objects (like white sheets with hoods or a burning cross) indicating bias
  • Membership in a significant group (such as the NAACP or a white supremacy organization)

Remember too that the term “hate crime” includes minority attacks on mainstream groups.

The officer at the scene will not be the person who decides how to prosecute the crime. But your observations and detailed reporting can be the deciding factors in a successful prosecution.

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