Responding to Bias Crimes and Bigoted Harassment: Suggestions for Victims and Advocates

Bias crimes, also referred to as hate crimes and malicious harassment, occur when individuals assault, threaten or vandalize the property of someone based on a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, handicap, or another status. Most bias crimes are covered by state laws, which vary in covered classes, definitions, and penalties imposed. Some state laws enhance penalties when existing crimes are motivated by bias, while others provide separate definitions making bias crimes offenses in their own right. Bias crimes are also addressed by a number of federal laws, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.

Bias crimes are addressed by the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. Matthew Shephard was a gay University of Wyoming student tied to a fence and brutally murdered by homophobic bigots in 1998. In 1998 James Byrd Jr, an African-American man was beaten, tied to a vehicle, and dragged to death by racists in Jasper, Texas, including two men tied to white supremacist prison gangs. Signed into law by President Obama, his law makes it a federal crime to willfully cause bodily injury (or attempt to do so with fire, a firearm or dangerous weapon) because of the target’s actual or perceived race, color, religion or national origin; or it is committed because of the religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability of a person and the crime affects interstate or foreign commerce or occurred in federal special maritime and territorial jurisdiction. The Act authorizes the federal government to provide grants and support for bias crimes investigations and provides jurisdiction to intervene if state authorities do not.

Not all incidents of harassment rise to the level of criminal or civil violations.  Even when harassment does not reach this level, communities need to respond. Strong community response can provide support for targets of harassment, undermine further expressions of bigotry and send a message that any escalation will be opposed and addressed to the full extent of the law. The guidelines below provide suggestions for responding to both bias crimes and other forms of bigoted harassment, whether you are the victim of this activity or supporting a target of bigotry.

  • Support Victims of Bias Crimes and Harassment.

This is the first priority in responding to bigoted violence and harassment.  Being the target of malicious harassment can be an isolating experience. Make a house call, offer to take them to coffee, or talk on the phone. But make sure to express your personal support and/or the support of your organization. This should include helping to fix any damage to the victim’s property [once it has been photographed by the victim/advocate and police]. Seek out businesses in the community that can repair and replace broken glass, paint over bigoted graffiti, or repairs other property damage. Or, have a work party to clean up damage from the bias crime.

  • Get Permission.

Before you move forward with any crime report,  investigation, or action to oppose bias crimes and their perpetrators, get the permission of the target of the act. It is important that victims of malicious harassment get to make decisions about their own exposure in the community.

  • Seek Medical Attention and Document Injuries.

If a bias crime leads to injuries, get medical attention right away.  Make sure you give a detailed account of the incident to medical personnel and insist that they photograph the injuries. Get a copy of your medical file.

  • Get to Know the Law.

A variety of federal, state and local laws address and bias-related crimes. Knowing the law can help you and your organization assess whether a given incident rises to the level of a criminal or civil offense. This can shape strategies vis-a-vis law enforcement. Get to know the laws that cover your jurisdiction. [maybe attach link to a page with paragraphs describing pertinent federal and state laws and links to more info on these laws].

  • Call the Police and Report the Crime.

Once you’ve gotten permission, or if you are the target of a bias crime, it is important to report the crime to law enforcement. Reporting the crime can break the silence that bigots often rely on to continue harassing people.   It also lets law enforcement know that you are aware that a crime was committed and want to pursue its prosecution.  This should be reported to police in the jurisdiction in which you live as well as to state and federal law enforcement agencies.

  • Document the Incident and Work with Police to Make Sure it is Property Investigated.

When a bias crime occurs, document the incident. Don’t disturb the crime scene, but be sure to photograph any vandalism to property or injuries that occurred. If you are the victim, it can help to write down your experience in as much specific detail as possible before police arrive. When the police arrive, get the officer’s name and badge number and give them as much detail and you can about the incident. Be specific and insistent on the facts of the incident. If you have a written account of the incident, keep a copy and give one to the police. Make sure the police photograph any damage to property or injuries. Write down your recollection of your conversation with the police. Get a copy of the police report and file it with your own account and evidence.

  • Stop telephone harassment.

Bias-related crimes and harassment can be preceded or followed by telephone harassment. If harassing calls begin, keep a log of them. Include details such as the content of the call, the time they called, the caller’s apparent gender, characteristics of their speech, and any background noise on the call. If the caller makes threats, is obscene, or persists in calling, this should be reported to the police. Different service providers have different procedures for address harassing calls. AT&T and Verizon have procedures for addressing unwanted and threatening calls for both landlines and cell phones. In addition, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse offers useful tips for responding to harassing calls to landlines and cell phones.

  • Conduct an Investigation of your own [develop protocols for investigating hate crimes.

Police and Sheriff Departments may or may not pursue a given incident as a bias crime. Whether it rises to the level of bias crime or not, pursue your own investigation. This should include photographing the scene of the incident and writing down your experience in detail. If you are assisting a target of hate crimes, record an interview with the victim to have a digital record. Talk to neighbors and others in the area of the incident find out if anyone saw something pertinent to the case. Contact human and civil rights groups or reporters to see if they have additional information about bias-related activities in the area.

  • Alert the Community and Your Neighborhood.

Perpetrators of bias crimes and harassment thrive when their actions lead to silence.  It is important to alert your community and neighborhood to the event. Contact local religious organizations, (churches, synagogues, mosques and community centers),  community and civic groups. Such groups can add a voice to yours and help raise concerns about the incident with local authorities. Also, reach out to people in your neighborhood. This can lead to your neighbors being more watchful or setting up Neighborhood Watch groups or safety escorts.

  • Call attention to the incident.

Perpetrators of bias crimes thrive when their actions cause silence. Take steps to publicize and call attention to the incident. Hold a press conference, rallies, and/or hold public forums calling attention to the incident and issues of malicious harassment and bigotry. Work with local religious organizations, human rights groups and community or civic organization to get public statements that can be publicly released. Reach out to public officials and ask them to make public statements about the incident.  Work with these organizations to send open letters to the community and law enforcement to demand that the incident be addressed to the full extent of the law.

  • Take Security Precautions.

If a bias crime has occurred, the perpetrators will likely be looking for other targets or could return to an individual already targeted. It is important to take security precautions to protect yourself from further harassment.

  • Contact advocate organizations.

A variety of groups in the community can provide additional support to victims of bias crimes and harassment.  Civil and human rights groups may have information about effective responses to bias crimes. Other community groups and social service agencies may have counseling and other resources to victims of bias crimes.