Under state law, the malicious harassment, or hate crime, statute provides protections for people attacked over race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or mental, physical or sensory handicap.
Merely calling someone a name is not a bias crime.
State law defines malicious harassment — a felony commonly referred to as a “hate crime” — as intentionally injuring, damaging property or threatening someone “because of his or her perception of the victim’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or mental, physical or sensory handicap.”
In Seattle a misdemeanor malicious harassment law extends those protections to include gender identity, homelessness, marital status, political ideology, age and parental status.
For more information on what constitutes a bias crime and how to report it, go to www.seattle.gov/police/safety/harassment/
Source: Seattle Police Department
Detective Beth Wareing investigates bias crimes for the Seattle Police Department and coordinates its response.
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She said the department tracks three types of bias:
• Malicious harassment;
• Crimes that have a bias element, such as when hatred toward a protected group or class is a secondary motivation;
• Bias incidents, in which “someone shares their nasty opinion about someone’s membership in these groups.”
Although bias incidents are not crimes, Wareing said tracking them helps SPD understand how people are being treated in a particular area or neighborhood and ensures that someone who feels threatened is heard. She said it also can give police an opportunity to intervene before someone with a mental-health issue commits a crime.
Wareing said malicious harassment is often “stranger-on-stranger” crime that is ”intended to humiliate people.”
“Oftentimes, victims are in a vulnerable state or completely unsuspecting, and someone comes and blindsides them,” Wareing said. “These are message crimes.”
In 2015, a total of 83 hate crimes were investigated by Seattle police, according to statistics compiled by the FBI. The majority of the complaints — 40 — were due to race, ethnicity and ancestry.
According to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, there were 324 bias-motivated offenses reported statewide in 2015.
It doesn’t matter if the person targeted is a member of a class specifically protected by the law, Wareing said. “What really matters is what the suspect thinks,” she said, and that there is evidence they’ve expressed disdain in a criminal manner.
Wareing said investigating bias crimes does take special considerations. Some targeted groups, such as refugees and immigrants, might come from countries where law enforcement is distrusted.
Because the crimes can be humiliating, some victims can feel ambivalent or uninterested in prosecution, she said.
Victims often have trouble understanding or remembering exactly what happened because harassment comes on so suddenly and without provocation, Wareing said. The first instinct of many is to flee the situation.
Seattle police officers are trained to ask questions that help determine why a victim was targeted, Wareing said.
If a bias crime is suspected, officers call a sergeant and notify a lieutenant.
“We try to be very consistent in taking these reports,” Wareing said.
She encouraged anyone who believes they might have been the victim of a bias crime to get to a safe site, call 911 right away and be clear with dispatchers and responding officers about what happened.
“We want them (victims) to give as much detail as they can about what was said, and that includes any comments that were made about those categories,” Wareing said.