On Wednesday, the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety will discuss bias-motivated violence. The hearing is a response to an Aug. 21 investigation by The Washington Post showing that despite record numbers of arrests for bias-motivated incidents, the number of cases charged as hate crimes by the U.S. attorney’s office plummeted in 2017 and 2018.
“Our neighbors are being attacked for no reason but who they are,” said committee chairman Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). “What does it say to the victims when the U.S. attorney’s office is not prosecuting these as hate crimes?”
The District is the only place in the country where local crimes are prosecuted by the U.S. attorney’s office, whose leader is appointed by the president. The setup makes it hard to hold prosecutors accountable, advocates say.
“We have a presidentially appointed prosecutor who makes the decision about whether these cases are prosecuted or not,” Allen said. “We created a hate crime law for a reason: It speaks to the values of our city. If it’s not going to be used, we need to know why.”
The hearing comes amid ongoing discussions over how the city can counteract the apparent surge in hatred. D.C. police attribute some of that rise to more people coming forward with reports.
“MPD has spent the past five years working to ensure that our officers are skilled in identifying possible hate crimes, and community members feel comfortable in reporting them. We believe that this effort contributes to the increased reporting,” D.C. police said in a statement. “However, the District is clearly not immune from the escalating negative discourse and intolerance around the country that has given rise to more bias-motivated crimes.”
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has demanded information on hate crime prosecutions from the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie K. Liu.
“I have not received a response from the U.S. Attorney despite two separate occasions when I wrote asking for details on the actions taken to protect residents and prosecute violence against minorities,” Norton wrote in a statement. “Refusing to give priority to a congressional inquiry regarding the District’s concerns is yet another reason why my home-rule bill to give the District full control over local prosecutions to ensure accountability should pass — and this can be done now even before statehood.”
Liu is listed as one of four government witnesses on the agenda for Wednesday. But Allen said her office had not confirmed its participation.
“We are saving them a seat,” he said. “It’s an important hearing, so I hope they will be here.”
Liu’s office did not respond to an interview request. She recently acknowledged the gap between hate crime arrests and prosecutions in the District, saying that her office had added personnel this summer to address the issue.
The Post’s months-long analysis of more than 200,000 D.C. police and court records found hate crime prosecutions and convictions to be at their lowest point in at least a decade.
One government official who is expected to testify Wednesday is Toni Michelle Jackson, a deputy attorney general for the District.
In an interview, Jackson said her testimony would address legislation filed Tuesday afternoon that would allow the D.C. attorney general to bring civil actions against those who commit bias-motivated violence.
If passed, the bill would allow her office’s new civil rights section to seek penalties of up to $10,000 per violation and restitution or other relief for victims.
“This is designed to fill that gap where there is not enough to prosecute a case criminally but it is a violent act based on someone’s protected status under the D.C. Human Rights Act,” Jackson said.
The bill would also allow the D.C. attorney general’s office to bring lawsuits against perpetrators of bias-motivated violence even when criminal charges have been filed.
“This gives district residents who have been victims of bias-motivated violence a voice,” said Vikram Swaruup, a lawyer in the civil rights section of the attorney general’s office.
Almost a dozen members of the public are scheduled to speak Wednesday, including members of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and advocates for LGBT rights.
Nearly half the District’s suspected hate crimes in 2018 targeted people on the basis of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, The Post’s investigation found.
Mike Silverstein, an ANC commissioner in Ward 2, said he intended to discuss several potential ideas to increase the number of successful hate crime prosecutions, including clarifying jury instructions. He also said he would push for more transparency in hate crime reporting and prosecution, particularly when the defendants are minors and their cases are handled by the D.C. attorney general’s office in secret.
“We demand to know the disposition of these cases,” he said.
Silverstein said he and other members of his ANC’s Rainbow Caucus met with Liu and her staff this month to discuss the ideas.
“They are aware of what’s going on,” he said.
The committee also will consider two bills that would limit the ability of people charged with violent crimes to claim that they acted in self-defense when they learned the victim was gay or transgender. Roughly a dozen states have bans on the gay or trans “panic” defense.