In the early hours of Aug. 16, a lively crowd filled Club Jam, a gay bar on the north end of Salt Lake City, for karaoke night. By some accounts, dozens of patrons were taking in the night air on the patio when they were bombarded by fiery flares hurled by unknown assailants. The projectiles caused a fence to catch fire and might have spread had patrons not quickly doused the fire with pitchers of water.
While police continue to investigate the flare attack, the culprits have so far evaded capture. It remains a mystery as to whether their act was purely random or motivated by hate against the popular gay club. Had the suspects been arrested, however, their motive would not have made a difference, since Utah law treats such incidents the same, whether juvenile pranks or acts of hate against people for being gay.
In Salt Lake City, however, the office of Mayor Ralph Becker and the Salt Lake City Council hope to craft ordinances that would give justice-court judges power to direct offenders of crimes motivated by bias toward treatment and diversity training, and possibly also assign them to perform service for the community their crime targeted.
Local leaders also hope that by tracking crimes at the city level that could be considered hate crimes, or “bias-motivated crimes,” they can gather enough data to change the dialogue on the state level about enhanced penalties for hate crimes.
“If we could get some data on how many crimes we think could be considered ‘hate crimes,’ then we could say to the Legislature that this is how many crimes, if we had a better statute, we could have prosecuted—this is how many missed opportunities we’ve had,” says Chris Wharton, chairman of Becker’s Human Rights Commission.
The city hopes to move forward with the ordinance in the fall.
The HRC had previously helped draft and sought to pass its own citywide ordinance but was told by legal counsel for the city that the ordinance would clash with state law.
In 1992, a state hate-crimes law was passed that advocates, as well as state and local prosecutors, consider largely toothless. Unlike other states’ hate-crime laws, Utah’s identifies no special classes of people who cannot be discriminated against and also forces prosecutors to prove defendants intended to terrorize a victim through hate, a bar high enough to make the law practically unenforceable.
Calls for a true hate-crime law have surfaced time and again at the Legislature, only to be beaten back down. But in the past year or so, a spate of alleged hate crimes has helped ignite the issue once again.
In fall 2011, two attacks grabbed headlines and the concerns of the local LGBT community. A gay man was beaten in American Fork by three men who yelled “faggot” at him during the attack. A few weeks prior to that, Dane Hall was assaulted outside of a Salt Lake City club following a gay-themed night. Hall was “curb checked” when assailants placed his open mouth on a concrete curb and stomped on the back of his head. While Salt Lake City Police later determined the incident to have been drug related, fear and doubt about the incident still linger within the LGBT community.
Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold has been working with the HRC to explore how the city can address hate crimes in a way that’s beneficial to all the communities of the city. Penfold acknowledges that the city is still in the research phase of the ordinance that might address crimes of bias, but says he supports the idea of giving the city’s justice-court judges the option of recommending diversity treatment options to those whom the judge decides may have committed a crime of misdemeanor violence or property damage out of bias.
“I’m not a big fan of behavior modifying through incarceration,” which is often the penalty prescribed by hate-crime laws, Penfold says. “I just don’t think sending someone to prison or jail by itself changes how they believe or changes their bias.”
Penfold says the city needs to figure out what kinds of organizations can provide educational instruction to people who commit crimes of bias, but he notes that the concept is not totally unique. He points out that the city already provides educational courses, for example in its “Johns School” for people arrested for soliciting prostitution to learn about risk factors. Justice-court judges also already recommend alcohol and substance-abuse therapy, as well as anger-management classes, for defendants in a variety of sentencing scenarios.
The HRC’s Wharton says that when educational resources are identified, the city will then work with justice-court judges to explain sentencing options for defendants whose crimes fit the bill of being motivated by bias.
Penfold is also excited about the prospect of improving the city’s understanding of what “bias-motivated” crimes are, and hopes the process could potentially better attune law enforcement and prosecutors to watching out for bias as a criminal motivation.
“I think the [Club Jam incident] is a really good example,” Penfold says. “That feels and sounds like a bias-motivated crime, but maybe it’s just vandals or maybe it is harassment. That’s part of the challenge for the city is, if we catch these guys, what options do we have for prosecuting, fining, educating them? How do you address the bias in the behavior?”