Jewish, Muslim, LGBTQ Groups Lead Charge On Hate Crimes Bill

Jewish advocacy groups are co-leading the effort to pass a bill this legislative session that will help Minnesota address a rise in hate crimes that has plagued the country and the state.

The legislation is spearheaded by a coalition of community organizations primarily made up of Jewish Community Action (JCA); the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR MN); and Out Front Minnesota, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) is also helping to advocate for the bill at the state capitol.

If passed, the bill will mandate police training on understanding and dealing with hate crimes, allow the state to collect hate crime reports from community organizations, and make it easier to charge property damage as a hate crime.

“Reporting and tracking hate crime is one aspect of addressing hate crimes, but it’s a critical part of that process,” said Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of CAIR MN. “If this system was in place, I think we would be in a position [to] be talking about next steps, and how do we really support communities.”

The hate crimes legislation is the culmination of over two years of planning by members of the coalition, who worked with Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, to draft the bill. The coalition also consulted with the state Attorney General’s office – which held seven listening sessions last year about hate crimes with communities across the state – and law enforcement agencies on the content of the bill.

“It’s taken a couple of years to get to the point where we have the bill in writing and it feels like the right bill,” said Carin Mrotz, executive director of JCA. “The progress of actually being able to have legislation to introduce – it does represent several years of, not just figuring out what the language is, but really engaging and getting the support of stakeholders.”

The bill was formally introduced to the Minnesota House of Representatives last month by Hornstein, heard in the Public Safety committee on March 4, and referred to the House Judiciary committee for a hearing there. Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, will formally introduce the bill into the Senate on Monday, March 16.

Why The Legislation?

Though FBI data shows an overall increase in hate crimes over the past few years in Minnesota and the rest of the country, the true scale and scope of the trend is unclear. Almost two-thirds of all hate crimes are not reported to law enforcement, according to a 2013 federal Justice Department study.

Being worried that police couldn’t help, fear of retribution, and having dealt with the hate crime individually were some of the most common reasons for lack of reporting, according to the study.

Under-reporting is as much an issue for law enforcement as it is for victims. In Minnesota, though law enforcement is mandated to report hate crimes to the state, almost two-thirds of all law enforcement agencies reported no hate crimes in their jurisdictions in 2016 and 2017, according to an investigation by the Star Tribune.

“If we’re going to start asking the state to do better at responsiveness and prevention, then we actually need to start getting some accurate data,” Mrotz said.

The hate crimes legislation addresses under-reporting across both of the gaps. If passed, Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights will collect data on hate crimes from community organizations like JCA, CAIR MN, and Out Front, who serve communities where victims are often uncomfortable or distrust interacting with police.

For law enforcement, the bill mandates training for identifying and addressing hate crimes, and tasks the state with creating a standardized policy on dealing with hate crimes. “Law enforcement has a protocol to deal with bias crimes that has not been updated in 30 years,” Hornstein said.

And if the bill becomes law, the long term effect of training won’t just be accurate hate crime statistics.

“I think you’re going to see a trust increase between law enforcement and communities,” Hussein said, “where the community feels that law enforcement are not just showing up to a call but really, fully, understand what’s happening.”

That disconnect is common, say Hussein and Mrotz.

Last week, after Islamophobic graffiti was found on a Mosque and a Muslim-owned business in North Minneapolis, Hussein said that he had to move the incident “up the chain of command [with police] just to get a response within the hour…and that’s not supposed to be what normal people do.”

Mrotz recalled an incident after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, in which a white supremacist killed 11 Jews on Shabbat in late October 2018, where JCA staff arrived at their office one morning and saw an unmarked bag full of black fabric on their doorstep.

The staff were concerned that the package was dangerous, so they called the St. Paul police to investigate.

Later that day, Mrotz called the police department because JCA hadn’t heard anything about the bag. “The dispatcher told us that the police officer, in fact, had come, had poked around in the bag, determined that it was just fabric, there was nothing wrong with it, and then he left,” she said. “But never knocked on our door, never called us, never looped back to tell us ‘hey, the package on your doorstep is just fine.’

“We felt that they had no cultural sensitivity…[or] understanding of how to interact with people who are experiencing terror and potentially some trauma.”

The third main provision of the bill will make property damage law more sensitive to how communities are affected by hate crimes. Current statutes charge property damage as a hate crime if the perpetrator targeted a specific property owner, which is difficult to enforce with hateful vandalism on public property.

“For example, if a swastika appears on Temple Israel, which it has in the past, everyone would easily recognize that as falling under the statute,” said Ethan Roberts, the JCRC’s director of government affairs. (Roberts is on the board of Jewfolk, Inc., TC Jewfolk’s parent organization.) “But what about if a swastika appears on a park bench in Edina? Or a school in Minneapolis? The way the law is written, it’s not clear.”

The bill rewrites property damage law to charge an incident as a hate crime based on the motive of the perpetrator, and the community in which the damage happens.

“The park bench…that’s not the victim here, it’s the community the message is targeting,” Roberts said.

From bill to law

Passing a bill this legislative session comes with some risk, with a Democrat-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate butting heads over priorities and a short session that ends in mid-May.

But so far the coalition is confident with the bill’s progress. “Clearly, this issue has been bipartisan,” Hussein said. “I think this bill is also bipartisan.”

The Senate bill will have two Democratic sponsors and two Republican sponsors.

There is also broad institutional support in the capitol. The AG’s office and the Department of Human Rights are advocating for the legislation.

In the House, once the bill gets hearings in the House Judiciary and the Ways and Means committees, it will be ready for a floor vote. In the Senate, once the bill is formally introduced this coming Monday, it needs to be heard in the Senate Judiciary and Finance committees, after which it will be ready for a floor vote.

Once both chambers pass the bill, it will be sent to Gov. Tim Walz to sign into law.

And if the House and Senate pass different versions of the legislation, the bill will be ironed out in a conference committee, and brought back to the House and Senate to be voted on.

The coalition is aiming to pass the bill on its own in the legislature, called a “stand alone” bill, rather than it being bundled into a larger omnibus or policy bill that is guaranteed to get stuck in partisan debate.

“Going as a standalone has certain advantages,” Roberts said, “but it also means you have to advocate for your bill at every step of the way.”

In preparation for the long haul, the coalition is signing on 12 more community organizations in the coming weeks, with the focus on “really building out the coalition so that we’re able to bring a broad range of testimony, including from the undocumented community and the Asian refugee community,” Mrotz said.

Coalition partners agree that the most effective way to pass the bill is for constituents to be in touch with their representatives and senators.

“It would be helpful if people took the time to thank the members who are authoring the bill in the House and the Senate, especially if you are a constituent,” Roberts said.

“Even a short email or voicemail or conversation with the members’ legislative assistant is appreciated. Everyone likes being thanked.”

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