Responding to complaints from gay and Jewish groups, the Justice Department confirmed yesterday that it has broadened the operations of a new national "hate crime" hot-line to accept reports of violence and intimidation against homosexuals and religious minorities.
The department's Community Relations Service (CRS) set up the toll-free hot-line last month, inviting calls from the victims of crimes who believed they were singled out on the basis of their race, color or national origin. But officials said then they would not take calls reporting crimes against homoxesuals or religious minorities because it would not fall within CRS's legislative mandate.
The decision spurred criticism from some gay and Jewish organizations, prompting CRS almost immediately to reverse its stand. Officials of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force cited the reversal yesterday as another political victory for their movement.
The Justice Department acted "because of pressure" from the gay community, said Kevin Berrill, director of the task force's anti-violence project.
"They did exert pressure and that probably had something to do with the changes that took place," said Gail Padgett, associate director of CRS, who along with other department officials recently met with members of the task force and the Anti-Defamation League over the issue. She also noted that Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), one of the sponsors of the Hate Crime Statistics Act, had protested the department's initial policy.
The expanded operation of the hot line, whose number is 1-800-347-HATE, is particularly significant because of reports of widespread hate crimes against gay and lesbians in recent years, gay activists said. At a news conference yesterday, the task force released a national survey it conducted reporting 7,031 such incidents last year, including 4,709 acts of verbal harassment, 795 physical assaults, 726 threats of violence, 385 acts of vandalism, 330 cases of police abuse and 62 murders.
"This report shows we remain a community under siege, battling an epidemic of bigotry and violence," Berrill said.
The number of "hate crimes" represents a slight decline from that recorded in the group's 1988 survey, but since reports of such crimes are often sketchy and reporting varies from state to state, task force officials said the figures greatly understate the number of such incidents. Among the incidents cited were attacks on gay men and lesbians by bands of neo-Nazi "skinheads," the burning of a gay activist's home in Missouri and numerous attacks and cases of harassment on college camupuses.
The group also protested what it called "expressions of anti-gay bigotry" by public figures, such as a speech last fall by William L. Seidman, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, in which he pledged to get so tough on thrift institutions that he would make "Attila the Hun look like a faggot." Seidman later apologized for the remark.