If the most important first step in fixing a problem is measuring it, a new report from the city might help Seattle stem the rising tide of hate crime. Meanwhile, a new ordinance might also make it easier to prosecute.
A new report from the Seattle City Auditor’s office shows efforts to encourage people to report bias crime are — sadly — working. In 2018, there were some 521 crimes and incidents involving bias reported in Seattle. That is up 25% over the previous year and up 313% in the five-year period starting 2014.
The rise is terrible but also shows SPD’s relatively small bias crimes unit is making progress in encouraging more people to report the crimes and shaping the department to take bias complaints more seriously.
Tuesday, the Seattle City Council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development, and Arts Committee will take up legislation started last summer to change how Seattle prosecutes hate crimes.
The new ordinance would remove Seattle’s malicious harassment crime, the city’s current hate crime statute, and replace it with a “special allegation of hate crime motivation,” giving the City Attorney’s office greater range in prosecuting crimes targeting protected classes and the ability to ask for greater penalties on more serious cases:
This ordinance authorizes the City Attorney to allege that a criminal incident of assault, harassment or property destruction was motivated by the defendant’s perception of the victim’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, mental handicap, physical handicap, sensory handicap, homelessness, marital status, political ideology, age, or parental status.
Replacing the crime of malicious harassment with the new special allegation of hate crime motivation will have three major impacts, according to a city council staff memo on the legislation from last June. First, the new category will require only that the City Attorney prosecutors prove someone “committed the act intentionally,” not that the person charged “committed the act maliciously.” Second, the change will allow prosecutors to charge a suspect for hate crimes against all protected classes including state-protected classes. The proposed special allegation will include the city and state protections: race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, mental handicap, physical handicap, sensory handicap, homelessness, marital status, political ideology, age, or parental status. Finally, the new method will allow prosecutors to pursue the underlying charges of assault, harassment, and property destruction and add the special allegation of a hate crime as warranted.
The City Attorney’s office has said it “anticipates asking for higher sentences in cases where they could prove the special allegation” but prosecutors don’t believe the new way to handle hate crime will result in more cases.
In addition to taking up the “hate crime motivation” ordinance, the committee will also hear an overview of the auditor’s bias report.
Amid other findings, the auditor says that the hate crime reporting data showed neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and the Central District are areas where bias incidents have been concentrated. Within the city of Seattle, the Downtown and Capitol Hill neighborhoods show clear concentrations of hate crimes,” a summary of the report reads. “The Downtown business district experienced more anti-race and ethnicity crimes, while Capitol Hill experienced more anti-LGBTQ crimes.” Hate crimes were also “concentrated along borders of racially diverse neighborhoods” —
The report also shows that, under the current hate crime statute, most prosecutions involve incidents at public places like bus stops or businesses where there are lots of witnesses present.
The auditor also says that another category of bias crime — hate graffiti — is a more widely spread type of bias in Seattle that SPD should investigate more seriously along with a set of larger recommendations for SPD’s hate crime investigations:
The full report is below: