This past Wednesday, leaders in Richmond’s LGBTQ community met at the FBI’s Richmond Division office in in Northside to discuss the agency’s role in hate crimes and supporting sexual minorities.
Leaders from the local FBI division as well as members of the Federal Justice Department (Assistant Special Agent in Charge Thomas Chadwick) in DC and from the Eastern District Division (US Attorney Brian Hood) were present and explained their roles in hate crime prosecution.
Wednesday’s presentation painted a supportive picture, but the ghost of incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his conservative agenda and distain for civil right, inevitably loomed in some attendee’s minds.
“I’ve been in this position for 20 years and I’ve never been instructed to drop a case,” (paraphrasing) said Hood when pressed about concerns over current cases currently being handled by the DOJ and the future of hate crime cases under Sessions.
Hood and Chadwick both promised to adhere to their mission of “defending the constitution” under the future administration.
Beyond federal agents, members of police and sheriff’s departments from Louisa County to Hampton Roads were in attendance to offer their take on how LGBTQ issues are handled within their jurisdictions.
Detectives from Louisa County shared a particularly interesting story involving a local high school’s Gay Straight Alliance facing pushback during a recent community event. They said their Chief was interested in supporting laws “even if unpopular” (paraphrased) as was the case when anti-LGBTQ protestors complained about the GSA’s involvement in a local parade event. Officers came out and defended the student’s right to assemble and be involved in the school-sanctioned event.
Other than anecdotal stories, the event included a presentation on identifying and prosecuting hate crimes lead by local FBI Civil Rights Special Agent James DeLoatch, III. He broke down the difference between hate crimes and hate speech and what the FBI’s role in prosecuting such cases in the Commonwealth is.
Virginia currently lacks state-level hate crime laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity, so if someone is attacked because they are LGBTQ, the feds must work a complicated system relating to interstate commerce to find grounds to prosecute.
This lack of state-level protections has failed victims like the man who was beaten at the Chesterfield Amazon shipping facility in May 2016.
Despite the passage of the The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, federal law still requires interstate commerce to get the FBI and DOJ involved. Obama’s DOJ has used things like guns manufactured over seas being used in hate crimes in the states as a way to prosecute. In the Amazon case, because the victim was assaulted while working at a facility where interstate commerce was happening (shipping packages over state lines) they argued the attack interrupted that commerce, thus giving the DOJ the right to prosecute.
So far, Virginia judges have disagreed with that argument and there continues to be no justice for the victim with the assailant still free on the streets.
The importance of local PD’s reporting hate crimes to the feds was also discussed. While a DOJ official from Washington would not confirm or deny the estimate, a GayRVA investigation found as little as 17% of Virginia’s police departments reported hate crime statistics in 2015. “I’ve seen the numbers and they aren’t great” (paraphrasing) said the DOJ official.
Despite some of the disappointing legal discussions, getting to meet with DOJ and FBI officials, along with local PD members from across Central VA, was a boon for folks like Bill Harrison, President of Diversity Richmond. He called the meeting “great on so many levels.”
“We certainly need to continue the dialogue with this great collection of folks and new contacts,” said Harrison after the event.
Harrison is already working with local activist Roland Winston on setting up future events with FBI officials at Diversity Richmond sometime in the spring.
Winston, who has spearheaded LGBTQ Police Liaison programs around Central Virginia, took the lead on organizing the FBI meeting as well.
“Nearly everyone in the LGBTQ community that I have spoken to has expressed anxiety over the election of Trump,” Winston said, acknowledging the troubled past many LGBTQ folks have with federal and local police agencies. “While [DOJ and FBI officials] attempted reassurance on Wednesday, it certainly doesn’t hurt for us to establish every relationship we can.”
Winston promised a more accessible public event in the future at Diversity Richmond. Stay tuned to GayRVA for updates.
Editor’s note: GayRVA Editor Brad Kutner was in attendance for the meeting but recording was not allowed, hence the paraphrasing.