Lenzner said he expects the unit to look “holistically” at cases “so we can make sure we are getting under the surface to address discrimination wherever it lies.”
“We are creating the civil rights unit to ensure that we are employing all federal resources to address civil rights violations and patterns and practices of discrimination in Maryland,” Lenzner said in an interview.
In a news release, the office said the civil rights unit will investigate and prosecute criminal conduct, such as hate crimes, and civil wrongdoing including “patterns or practices of discrimination” in education, housing, employment and health care.
The unit will also collaborate with the office’s national security team to ensure that civil rights statutes are adequately applied when acts of domestic terrorism are racially motivated or include hate crimes.
After the Jan. 6 riot in which supporters of former president Donald Trump breached the Capitol, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said domestic terrorism “has been metastasizing around the country for a long time now, and it’s not going away anytime soon.” He said in September that the number of domestic terrorism cases was about 1,000. The number rose to 1,400 by the end of 2020, and after Jan. 6 the figure increased again.
The federal prosecutors assigned to the new unit will continue working with the FBI as well as the civil rights division of the Justice Department. But the goal is to expand collaboration beyond other federal agencies, Lenzner said, working with local law enforcement agencies and community-based organizations across the state to educate Maryland residents about their constitutional and civil rights protections.
The pandemic, Lenzner said, is “further exposing and deepening the vulnerabilities” of people who already have the least amount of protection.
Lenzner took over the office less than a month ago, when Trump appointee Robert K. Hur resigned after nearly three years in the job. Lenzner was Hur’s first assistant U.S. attorney.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland is one of the country’s largest and most active, and federal prosecutors there have handled several recent cases related to bias-based crimes.
The office secured a conviction in the case of former Coast Guard lieutenant Christopher P. Hasson, who was accused of planning a killing rampage motivated by white nationalism.
It also prosecuted three people accused of being connected to the violent extremist group known as The Base.
Lenzner, whose father worked in the Justice Department’s civil rights division in the 1960s, said the idea for creating this unit was born out of need.
“It’s fundamental and important to the well-being of all Maryland residents,” he said.
The office, Lenzner said, hopes to be proactive and not just reactive. Attorneys assigned to the new unit will work with county and municipal jurisdictions to secure grant funding and training from the Justice Department.