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D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton wants more action on hate crimes in city

Troubling findings on hate crimes in D.C.

Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C. is demanding answers from the U.S. Attorney's office about the apparent lack of prosecution of hate crimes in her city. The District currently leads the nation in reported hate crimes per capita, and a recent report in the Washington Post called attention to the fact that the majority of these cases are never prosecuted.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie Liu, Norton writes: "I am concerned about the low prosecution rates by your office compared to those of other cities.  I would like an explanation for the very high declination rate for hate crime prosecutions by your office and whether these declination decisions stemmed from a lack of resources or from other causes."

Norton notes that a previous request for information by the U.S. attorney's office has gone unanswered.

Members of D.C.'s LBGTQ community are disproportionately affected by hate crimes. The city has the highest LGBTQ population rate in the United States, according to a new study from Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. Police and court records reported by the Post revealed that LGBTQ residents have been targets of suspected hate crimes in D.C. more often than any other group of residents — accounting for nearly half of such cases in the city last year.

In 2017, D.C. police arrested 54 adults for suspected hate crimes, but of those, only two cases were prosecuted as hate crimes by the U.S. attorney's office, and the hate crimes charges were dropped as part of plea deals. 

In 2018, police investigated a record 204 cases of potentially bias-motivated attacks, but only three people were prosecuted for hate crimes. The Post notes that hate crime prosecutions and convictions are at their lowest point in at least a decade, despite the increase in complaints.

Policing in the LGBTQ community has been a sticking point, especially among transgender residents who remain marginalized and vulnerable. Specifically, transgender people are often targeted in acts of violence or abuse because of their gender identity or presentation, and advocates say sometimes that comes at the hands of the law enforcement authorities entrusted with their safety. As a result, many trans individuals are reluctant to rely on police for help.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality's 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, a majority (57%) of transgender people are afraid to go to the police when they need it. 

D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department notes that while on its face, a hate crime is currently defined as "demonstrating an accused's prejudice based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression",  the classification as a hate crime is subject to change as an investigation proceeds — even as prosecutors continue an investigation.

"Although that may seem obvious, most speech is not a hate crime, regardless of how offensive it may be. In addition, a hate crime is not really a specific crime; it is a designation that makes available to the court an enhanced penalty. In short, a hate crime is not a crime, but a possible motive for a crime," the police department said.

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