Defining Hate Crimes
July 23, 2012

PHOENIX -- This week we launch our five-part Fronteras Desk series, The Search For Tolerance. Five reporters in five cities checked on the ways that communities are trying to prevent hate crimes. The stories air on several public radio stations in the Southwest this week.

But as communities work to prevent hate, a question often arises when some form of harassment or discrimination does occur: Was that a hate crime?

During the last few decades, the vast majority of states have added hate crime laws to their books. These statutes allow longer criminal sentences if there is evidence that a crime was motivated by bias.

At a recent town meeting in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert, concerned residents and the police chief entered into a dialogue about the legal definition of a hate crime.

Their discussion focused on the case of Felix Bermea and Roy Messerschmidt, a same-sex couple who recently moved their four foster children to a home in Gilbert, where they say they have been been harassed for the past several months. The couple has reported a break in, a phallic drawing outside their home, repeated knocking on their front door, and a fire set to the bushes on their property line.

"While legally this is not considered a hate crime, in my opinion and in the opinion of a lot of the gay community, it is a hate crime," said concerned citizen Forrest Kruger at a community meeting on July 11. Kruger was one of several people who had heard of the Bermea-Messerschmidt family's situation and felt the Gilbert police were not taking the harassment seriously enough. "These people are being targeted, and they have been terrorized for months now, when does it stop?"

So far, both the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League and the Gilbert Police Department have said there is not enough information to classify the incident as a hate crime, since the perpetrators haven't been caught, and their intent is still unknown.

Photo by Jude Joffe-Block
On July 14 about 50 people rallied in Gilbert, Ariz. in support of a same-sex couple who have been harassed in their home. Whether or not the harassment should be considered a hate crime has been a topic of discussion in the community.

"I believe that they believe that they are being targeted because of their sexual orientation," Gilbert Police Chief Tim Dorn responded during the meeting. "If I was in their shoes i would probably think that I was being targeted, too."

But Dorn went on to say, "We have to determine what the motivation is, we can't go on perception, or opinion."

There is no criminal charge that is a hate crime in Arizona. Instead it is a sentencing enhancer for another crime.

Dorn said his agency is investigating the crimes that occurred at the residence, such as criminal trespass in a residential structure and arson. At a later date if there is evidence that the crimes were motivated by homophobic or racist attitudes, then they could be classified as hate crimes. That would mean the perpetrators could face a longer sentence.

Michael Lieberman, a lawyer for the Anti-Defamation League, explained the rationale for these hate crime laws and accompanying harsher sentences in a 2010 essay in Dissent Magazine. He wrote that while it is best to prevent hate crimes from happening in the first place, "when these crimes do occur, we must send an unmistakable message that they matter, that our society takes them very seriously."

Which explains why emotions can run hot when there is a clash between what community members believe was a hate crime, and the legal definition according to law enforcement.

The Search For Tolerance

Fronteras: The Changing America Desk has joined forces with Not in Our Town documentary producers to determine how hate affects communities throughout the Southwest and what people are doing about it.

So far the fact that the recent harassment in Gilbert doesn't necessarily constitute a hate crime isn't preventing a town response. The Arizona Republic reported the town is intensifying its efforts to promote tolerance, and the police department said it would appoint a part-time diversity officer.