On October 25, 2023 around 100 local residents filled a conference room in the Newtown Community Center. Some of the women wore head coverings while many of the men wore Kippahs. Black, white and Latinx neighbors; clergy of various religions; elected officials (along with current candidates) and law enforcement officers all gathered together with one goal in common: Learn from a panel of experts about how to identify, report, and prevent hate crimes in the Newtown area.
The panelists included Anastasia King, Asst. U.S. Attorney, Criminal Division; William Brown, Asst. U. S. Attorney, Civil Division; Anish Shukla, ASAC FBI (CT); David Kullgren, Chief of the Police from the Newtown Police Department; Sergeant Luke LaRue, CT Hate Crime Investigative Unit, State Patrol; Clifford Magliore, CT State Trooper, Shan Patel, Attorney who prosecutes and investigates Hate Crimes; Sergeant William Chapman, Community Relations, Newtown PD; Kristian Chiriatti, Asst. CT State Attorney, Nicole Maddox, Executive Committee Member, Newtown Allies for Change, and Kate McGrady, Executive Committee Member, Newtown Allies for Change.
Although this discussion had been planned for months, it fell amid an uptick of anti-Semitic activity in the area. Many attendees were visibly stressed, and some were even skeptical that a “simple” panel discussion would do anything to help draw attention to the very real problems in our town, much less make a difference. Yet, as the evening progressed and experts both shared information AND listened to the questions and concerns of the crowd, defenses were lowered and a sense of hope began to move through the room.
In the beginning of the program, Ms. King explained the distinction between crimes, hate crimes, hate incidents and discrimination. In order for a crime to be considered a hate crime, there has to be a motivation that is based on bias. The motivation also must be a bias towards a person who is a member of a protected class due to their race, color, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity. While the word “hate” sounds as if emotions attached to the actions, it is not based off of how the perpetrator expresses himself in the moment of the crime. If a person willfully causes or attempts to cause bodily injury with a weapon or interferes with a Federal right AND the person would not have acted as such “but for” the victim’s protected status, that is what makes a crime a hate crime. The perpetrator doesn’t have to feel a certain way emotionally, he simply has to have acted because of their perception of the victim.
An example of this comes from the U.S. vs. Hakey case. On November 14, 2015 a man named Ted Hakey, Jr. opened fire onto the Mosque located next door to his home. While no one was injured in the shooting, the members of the Mosque (a sect which were religious refugees from their home country where they were viewed as heretics by others under the umbrella of Islam) did not feel safe. Once evidence brought the police to Hakey’s home, they found that not only were there shell casings underneath the window in his house which faced the Mosque, but also that Hakey had posted on social media multiple times speaking about how all Muslims deserved to be killed. It was Hakey’s social media posts which made his actions (which were indeed criminal to begin with) fall under the category of a Hate crime.
After learning the distinction between the types of crimes and simple the audience began discussing different examples of crimes and whether they were considered crimes or incidents. We also learned that racism is not illegal: but treating someone differently and unlawfully based on belonging to a protected class group is illegal. As the discussions took place, it quickly became obvious that for many of the attendees these were not simply examples to discuss hypothetically, but these were things which they live with every day of their lives. While the law enforcement experts encouraged the audience to report every single instance of a hate crime or incident, people in our community were cynical that any positive change would happen if someone reported an incident. They had learned to take these things in stride, as something they simply put up with because it happens often.
The feeling of distrust was palpable in the crowd. In the past, people had reported incidents and felt as if nothing was ever done. There was a sense that reports were “thrown into a waste basket” than put into a file. This was where our local Law Enforcement Officers began to speak up and share the work which is already taking place.
Law enforcement officers are statutorily bound to follow through with any reports which are made in reference to a hate crime, hate incident or discrimination of any type. The officers also encouraged the entire audience that even if they are not certain whether something can or cannot be categorized as a hate crime or incident, it ought to be reported. They explained that the more people report, the more likely someone will be charged in the future, especially if they are a repeat offender. Remember, that was how Ted Haker was able to be convicted of committing a hate crime.
As the discussion continued, incidents in the school district were discussed. One man asked a very good question about mandatory reporting in the schools. He wondered that since teachers are mandatory reporters for sexual abuse, human trafficking and other types of situations which endanger children, are they also considered mandatory reporters for hate crimes and incidents. This was where the gaps in our system were most glaring. There has been almost zero training in recent years within the school district beyond the administrative level. All eyes are now on our school district with hopes that they will make this panel discussion mandatory training for our educators to help them know how to act when they hear of or witness a hate crime within the school.
The evening ended with some great information on what to do when someone witnesses a Hate Crime or incident. First, if there is imminent danger, one should always call 911 first and foremost. ALL hate crimes should be reported to the local law enforcement and then to the FBI. Afte that you can obtain additional Department of Justice support from www.justice.gov/hatecrimes.
Overall, the message was clear: If you see something, say something. It is not simply up to the victims of hate crimes to call and report. Every single person in our community should be vigilant and report any and all crimes and incidents to local law enforcement. Doing so will make our entire community safer. Afterall, when one part of our community is hurting, the entire community hurts.