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Best practices of a hate/bias crime investigation.

On April 23, 1990, the U. S. Congress signed the Hate Crime Statistics Act into law. (1) Previous to this act, hate/bias crimes existed, but were not tracked or focused on as a specific type of crime. For example, Adolf Hitler's attempted genocide in the 1930s and 1940s registers as one of the most heinous acts in history and the abomination that all hate! bias crimes are measured against, but, at the time of its discovery and investigation, no act or specific guideline for investigating and classifying hate/bias crimes existed.

The FBI defines a hate/bias crime as "a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity! national origin." (2) Hate/bias crimes destroy communities, as well as hoard resources from law enforcement agencies. Hate/bias crimes tear at the very fabric of American society--a society based on clear and certain truths intended for all citizens and communities and distinctly stated in the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Law enforcement agencies and officers need to know the issues, guidelines, and action steps that comprise an effective hate/bias crime response and investigation. (3) Law enforcement agencies also should ensure that investigators receive training in such critical elements as understanding the role of the investigator, identifying a hate! bias crime, classifying an offender, interviewing a victim, relating to a community, and prosecuting an offender. When hate/bias crimes occur, they deserve investigators' timely response, understanding, and vigilance to ensure an accurate and successful investigation. While veteran investigators of hate/bias crimes recognize these basic tenets, they also know the importance of revisiting them periodically to remind law enforcement officers how to handle fragile victims, families, and communities that have been traumatized by the hateful act of a criminal. Furthermore, the events of September 11, 2001, require the law enforcement community to render special attention to these crimes because the hated community was the entire United States and its way of life.

Understanding the Investigator's Role

All investigators responding to or helping in the investigation of a hate/bias crime must be caring and compassionate persons. They must tolerate all races, religions, national origins, sexes, sexual orientations, and disabilities to maintain a nonjudgmental attitude throughout an investigation. Investigators must have comprehensive knowledge of the general elements and motivations behind hate/bias crimes. Investigators also need to recognize the potential of such crimes to affect the primary victim, the victim's family, other members of the victim's group, or the larger community.

When working with the victims of a hate/bias crime, the role of the first responder is critical. (4) In many instances, the investigator is the first contact with law enforcement, the government, or the justice system that the victim may have experienced. Investigators become representatives of their entire agency, and, without a good first impression, the victim may feel driven away. Driving a victim away, even unintentionally, will slow an investigation and cause the victim to feel even more alienated. Responding to a potential hate/bias crime in the correct fashion can open the lines of communication between the victim and the investigator, but it also can ensure that the search for offenders begins in the right direction.

Identifying Hate/Bias Crimes

* Was the victim a member of a targeted class?

A common, but critical, mistake in a hate/bias crime investigation is the misidentification of the crime. Attempting to correct a misidentification with a victim, community, or within a law enforcement agency is time consuming and difficult at best. Officers unsure about identifying a potential hate/bias crime should consult with a supervisor or an expert on the topic. They should use the department chain of command to inform the department of the incident and to update key members throughout the investigation. Questions similar to the following will help investigators identify hate/bias crimes and begin an investigation.

* Was the victim outnumbered by the perpetrators?

* Did the victim and offender belong to different groups?

* Would the incident have taken place if the victim and offender were of the same group?

* Have other incidents occurred in the same locality or in a similar place?

* Have other incidents happened at similar times?

* Is the time significant to hate-motivated groups?

* Were the victims of these incidents members of a targeted group?

* Was the victim a member of a protected class that is outnumbered by members of another group in the neighborhood?

* Did the offender use biased oral comments, written statements, or gestures?

* Were bias-related objects, items, or symbols used or left at the crime scene?

Classifying Offenders

Equipped with the answers to these questions, investigators should be able to determine if the crime was committed based upon hate or bias and, if so, begin to investigate the motivations of the offender. Hate/bias crimes, offenders, and their motivations all typically fit within five basic classifications.

1) Thrill seeking: Generally groups of young people, these offenders are motivated by the experiences of psychological or social excitement, mere pleasure, or the gain of bragging rights. Their targets often are unknown outside the groups they represent. Hate! bias-based graffiti or verbal or physical assault represent offenses of this classification.

2) Organized: Motivated by the need to express their profound resentment against, for the most part, minority groups, these offenders look for a role model or leader who will organize and encourage them to act. Skinheads and their activities exemplify this classification.

3) Missionary: Usually identifying with a specific leader or higher power, these offenders seek to rid the world of evil by disposing of the members of an identified and despised group. Those led by Hitler typify this classification.

4) Reactive: Typically showing a lack of tolerance for individuals of other groups, these offenders protect and defend what belongs to them (a country, community, neighborhood, school, or church) from outsiders. Average citizens defending their race against another race characterize this classification.

5) Identity conflicted: Motivated by self-hatred or self-protection, these offenders assault targets with whom they share common traits or characteristics. A homosexual person targeting or assaulting other homosexuals epitomizes this classification.

Once a crime has been responded to, recognized as a hate! bias crime, and classified as such, investigators should conduct a timely and comprehensive follow-up investigation. Knowing and understanding the five typical classifications, as well as remaining aware of meaningful calendar and anniversary dates (e.g., Hitler's birthday), key symbols (e.g., tattoos, mantras), or previous patterns of activity significant for these groups and their agendas, can assist in an effective investigation. Investigators must proceed promptly to keep the incident from escalating, apprehend the perpetrator, and diligently process all physical evidence, all while remaining sensitive to the feelings and needs of the victim or surrounding community.

Interviewing Victims

Hate/bias crimes are uniquely violent and traumatic. Victims of these crimes feel degraded, isolated, frightened, suspicious of others, powerless, and depressed. Some victims experience severe trauma and denial about the incident, and some victims and families may feel emotionally disturbed for extended periods of time. This long-term stress can take a substantial toll on a family and the surrounding community. Effective investigators know and understand these elements of hate/bias crimes.

Responsive and sensitive investigators also understand how important their communication skills are in these cases and that, in many cases, listening is more important than talking.

When interviewing the victim of a hate/bias crime, investigators must pay attention to the victim's state of mind and do everything in their power to gain useful information while creating a nonstressful environment for the victim. Investigators should interview victims in private. This will help calm victims and remove them from any distractions. Investigators who allow a close friend or family member to join the interview will experience calmer victims. These people will provide support, keep the victims focused, and help them relax. However, official statements cannot be made for victims by friends and family, and investigators should make this clear. Some victims also may require, or be more comfortable with, an interpreter.

Investigators should ask questions slowly and allow the victim plenty of time to think or recall important details. Some questions will be difficult to ask and answer; therefore, investigators never should become impatient or argumentative with the victim. Investigators need to collect critical information about specific acts or words used by the perpetrator, as well as record and compile anything else that can help establish a motivation of hate or bias. Victims also will need time to vent frustration and display emotions. To help facilitate this, investigators should express a genuine sense of care and concern throughout the investigation. Last, investigators must help victims connect to sources of support in the community. The critical information gathered during these interviews will be advantageous to a thorough and expeditious investigation, the apprehension of perpetrators, the prosecution of the crime, the response to other such crimes, and the prevention of hate/bias crimes in the future.

Relating to Communities

Many citizens do not understand hate/bias crime laws, investigation procedures, or the time required to complete a successful investigation. Thus, investigators need to work as liaisons between their agency and the community. Educating victims and others about hate/bias crimes should become a priority and coincide with an investigation. Victims and communities will then better understand probing and inquisition regarding the incident. Moreover, education could become a valuable investment in future prevention or response to such crimes.

Investigators can use many tactics to educate, train, and empower communities to fight hate/bias crimes. Establishing and training Neighborhood Watch groups, encouraging community meetings and community problem-solving activities, and supporting community efforts by involving local law enforcement agencies are just a few of the ways investigators can make a good first impression with the community. Investigators also can train targets and victims of hate/bias crimes as responsive and preventive advocates; engage members of local community organizations to help with the response, investigation, and prevention of hate/bias crimes; and help coordinate critical support services for primary and secondary victims. Vigorously responding to and investigating hate/bias crimes in the local community and using the media proactively to inform and educate the community also will generate trust for investigators within a community. On a larger scale, using national resources, programs, and models for prevention, response, and healing will help revive communities.

Working with the families, friends, neighbors, and communities that surround a hate/bias incident becomes as important as working with the victim. Secondary victimization induces blame, outrage, or fear in a family, group of friends, or community. These groups may be motivated to act in response to a hate/bias crime and retaliate in their own ways unless they are educated and provided other options for response or healing. Moreover, no better advocates exist in a community than victims of a hate/bias crime. Training victims and communities to cooperate with law enforcement and other community programs takes the control out of the hands of the perpetrator, instills confidence in the victim and community, and prevents future crimes.

Prosecuting Offenders

To instill even more confidence in an affected community, investigators must help with the prosecution of offenders. Keeping the state district attorney's office informed and involved is absolutely necessary for effective prosecution of individuals involved in hate/bias crimes. Federal violations will require the involvement of federal agencies. In these cases, establishing rapport with the federal agency assisting in the investigation and with the U.S. Attorney's Office will constitute the correct avenue for investigators. Also pertinent to investigations is the fact that some states do not have hate/bias crime laws. Departments and investigators in these states must be willing to assist the federal agencies and unite with the U.S. Attorney's Office to ensure the prosecution of suspects. A working relationship with any state or federal attorney's office and its investigators can help develop a joint road map to a successful investigation and prosecution, secure needed search warrants, establish rapport betw een the victim and the prosecutor, and introduce the victim and community to the inner-workings of the justice system.

The goal of an investigation is to bring the criminal to justice. Prosecution of the perpetrator will help the victim and community bring closure to the horrid events and will bring law enforcement and the community more into harmony, thus creating a safer place for people to live and work.


Law enforcement officers who respond to or investigate hate/bias crimes must understand the complexities that define such acts. In turn, they will benefit from informed choices and actions that can help keep or return a community to a safe, secure, and peaceful state. Before the goal of returning a community to normalcy can be achieved, however, investigators have the task of dealing with families, the community, and the local media, in addition to the victim and offender. Furthermore, multiple law enforcement agencies must be included in the investigation to ensure that every logical question is asked and every practical scenario is investigated. Law enforcement agencies and departments that understand the connections between these actions and results will promote the sensitive, timely, and effective response and investigation of hate/bias crimes in their communities.


(1.) U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reporting Program, Hate Crime Statistics 2000 (Washington, DC, 2001). For more information on collecting hate crime, see U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reporting Program, Training Guide for Hate Crime Data Collection (Washington, DC, 1997), 60.

(2.) Ibid., Training Guide for Hate Crime Data Collection, 59.

(3.) The author reached the conclusions in this article by drawing on his 15 years of teaching experience on hate/bias crimes, as well as his 33 years of experience with the Los Angeles County, California, Sheriff's Department.

(4.) In some agencies, the first responder is also the lead investigator, while in other agencies the lead investigator is a different officer. For the purpose of this article, the roles of the first responder and the lead investigator are combined and referred to as the investigator.

Mr. Bouman currently trains federal officers in California and New Mexico in cooperation with te Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) based in Glynco, Georgia.
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Author:Bouman, Walter
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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