Why Georgia’s No Place for Hate Crimes Law

Why Georgia’s No Place for Hate Crimes Law

Benjamin Kweskin

Based in the US and specializing in the Middle East, International Affairs, and US Foreign Policy, Benjamin Kweskin has been researching and writing for over fifteen years and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.

GBI Director Vernon Keenan (left), Rep. Taylor Bennett, Rep. Simone Bell and AJC reporter Greg Bluestein (right) talk about hate crimes legislation at an ADL event Aug. 17, 2016. (Photo by Benjamin Kweskin)
GBI Director Vernon Keenan (left), Rep. Taylor Bennett, Rep. Simone Bell and AJC reporter Greg Bluestein (right) talk about hate crimes legislation at an ADL event Aug. 17, 2016. (Photo by Benjamin Kweskin)

More than 5,400 hate crimes were reported in the United States in 2014, but Georgia reported only 56 in 2015, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan said.

That’s not because Georgia is a state too busy to hate, but because it is one of five states that do not have hate crimes legislation. So Georgia does not have mandatory reporting of hate crimes or any statewide definition of what constitutes a hate crime.

Thus, Keenan told the 100 or so attendees at an Anti-Defamation League panel discussion Wednesday, Aug. 17, titled “Hate Crimes: Political Rhetoric, Reality, and Action,” Georgia’s data collection has been insufficient, and the state’s statistics are inaccurate.

Keenan and his fellow panelists examined the reasons and consequences for the Georgia General Assembly’s hate crimes inaction.

With support from the Jewish community, Georgia passed a hate crimes law while Roy Barnes was governor, but the state Supreme Court in late 2004 unanimously struck down the law as “unconstitutionally vague” so that it could be applied to every possible prejudice.

Subsequent efforts to pass a constitutional law have stumbled in the legislature, usually over the inclusion of crimes against LGBTQ people.

The FBI states that hate crimes legislation focuses on crimes committed “against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”

Working with numerous local and national partners, the ADL a year ago launched an initiative, 50 States Against Hate, to pass or enhance hate crimes laws across the nation. The four pillars of the initiative are stronger laws, better training for law enforcement, improved data collection, and increased community awareness and reporting.

The program Aug. 17 was the culmination of this summer’s ADL Glass Leadership Institute. The participants selected the topic and helped pick the panel.

Greg Bluestein, a political reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, moderated the discussion among Keenan and Democratic state Reps. Simone Bell of Atlanta and Taylor Bennett of Brookhaven.

Bell, the regional director for Lambda Legal, said Georgia has failed to enact hate crimes legislation “due to lack of political will” amid many variables.

“We don’t want there to be a misconception of what a hate crime is,” Bennett said. “Some representatives don’t even have a firm grasp of the definition.”

Encouraging the public not to politicize potential hate crimes, he said: “It is not a political issue. It’s a human rights issue.”

Bell largely agreed that it can be difficult to decide what constitutes a hate crime. “For example, if someone attacks someone who is LGBTQ, calls them offensive, derogatory names, and then robs them, is this a hate crime?”

The two legislators said they want to avoid putting a bad law on the books.

Keenan said that not having such legislation “sends a message to criminal elements that this behavior is acceptable.”

The GBI director said the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers nationally and locally support hate crimes laws, including a resolution passed by the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police about 10 years ago, but “some in the electorate do not want to be seen as privileging certain segments of the community.”

Bennett said hateful rhetoric has “reached a pinnacle … on the national level and is worrisome and scary.”

The panelists alluded to local and national political figures stoking such rhetoric and thus inciting if not endorsing violence.

“Rhetoric is currently out of control,” Bell said in answer to a question about Muslims and LGBTQ people being targeted. “This rhetoric has set us back, harming the good work the Jewish community and other communities have been doing for years. This is why we need to continue to build coalitions in order to come together as one large voice. We need people to be able to tell their stories, and we need to continue to collect data.”

Bennett reiterated the need to depoliticize the problem of hate crimes and to educate elected officials as well as the general public. “We need to accurately define what is a hate crime and deal with these on a case-by-case basis.”

Noting that strong, specific laws target crimes against the elderly and children, Keenan wondered why legislation shouldn’t protect other vulnerable parts of the population.

Asked whether targeting and killing police officers constituted a hate crime, Keenan said no. Including police officers, the director said, “dilutes other hate crimes.”

Keenan is not optimistic about getting a hate crimes law in Georgia. “Unfortunately, the federal government will only prosecute the most egregious of acts,” he said. “It will take a horrific crime in Georgia for legislation to be pushed through.”

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