On a hot Saturday morning at the end of September, a Bushwick man was shot for dressing as a woman. Three young men chased him down Bushwick’s Broadway Avenue shouting taunts and slurs. Shot by a .40 caliber handgun at Putnam and Broadway, the victim was released from Brookdale University Hospital the next day. His attackers, 21-year-old Matthew Smith, 22-year-old Cody Sigue, and 17-year-old Tavon Johnson were apprehended and charged with numerous hate crimes, including menacing, harassment, assault, and attempted second-degree murder.
Two days after the shooting, amidst growing hate crime in the borough, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced a new Hate Crimes Unit dedicated to prosecuting bias-motivated crimes like that in Bushwick. Led by civil rights bureau chief Marc Fliedner, the unit will have a team of five prosecutors.
Experts and local activists say the solution to hate crime, particularly sexual orientation-motivated hate crime, is in policing and not prosecution though. Without changes to police efforts, they don’t see the new unit as doing anything to change the reality in Brooklyn.
In Bushwick, home to New York’s largest drag festival, hate crimes against the neighborhood’s LGBT community are tragically common. Many recent examples exist, notably the case of Ricardo Muniz. After fighting back in a 2009 assault, Muniz was prosecuted while his assailants walked free. Researchers say cases like Muniz aren’t uncommon and require particular efforts by police. Sexual orientation-based hate crime has the highest rate of violence and, in some assessments, the lowest rate of reporting.
Brooklyn has a bias crime problem more broadly though. According to the NYPD and New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, Brooklyn has more hate crime than any other borough in the city and any other county in the state. In the first nine months of 2014, Brooklyn has already seen 95 such incidents – a 30 percent increase for the borough against an overall 17 percent for the city, according to widely reported NYPD statements. The DA’s new unit came about in response to this growing problem.
However, Columbia Law Professor Daniel Richman says the manpower is needed in investigating the notoriously under-reported crimes, not prosecuting those the borough already knows about. In his view, the new unit of prosecutors is far less important than “either investigators from the DA’s office or coordination from the NYPD.”
Nonetheless, the DA’s office explicitly communicated to New York City Lens that the new initiative will not include investigators and no change will take place in the police investigation of Brooklyn’s hate crimes. While the new unit will coordinate with the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force, Brooklyn DA spokeswoman Helen Peterson concluded that police exclusively “make arrests and investigate cases as they come up.”
The substantial under-reporting of hate crimes puts the burden on investigation, not prosecution, according to Richman and other observers. Unlike extreme public cases like September’s Bushwick shooting, the vast majority of hate crimes go unreported. The FBI estimates only one in fifteen hate crimes make it into national figures that it finds incomplete given state-level counts. Mississippi, for instance, reported zero hate crimes between 2005 and 2007 while New York reported over 800 in the same period.
State discrepancies don’t account for crimes left unreported to police in the first place though. Police practices common to all states result in substantial under-reporting. According to the Human Rights Campaign, police often fail to consider hate crime because of inexperience, personal bias, and poor systematic review. On September 25th, two days before the Bushwick shooting, a state audit of the NYPD’s hate crime data found police error had led to consistent undercounts. The audit noted that the NYPD had no common tracking system or analysis of this data, recommending that recordkeeping and training be implemented.
NYPD mismanagement undermines any effort by the Brooklyn DA’s office. Hate crimes can only be prosecuted when police identify these crimes for prosecutors. Besides lost data, the audit also concluded that NYPD dramatically undercounts the actual incidence of hate crimes. The state report observes that “the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which tracks hate violence against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities, reported that it served 470 hate-crime survivors in 2012, more than the total number of bias incidents reported by the NYPD for the year.” According to official numbers, New York City saw 53 such crimes in 2012, barely a tenth of this independent figure.
Hate crimes against LGBT victims are under-reported uniquely often. Distrust of police, fear of being ‘outed,’ and police inexperience contribute to under-reporting, according to numerous researchers and the same HRC report. Professor Richman reflected that “one of the ironies of hate crime enforcement is that the groups who are most likely to be grievously injured in hate crimes might not be the ones who are quickest to report.”
According to UC Davis Professor Rose Cuison-Villazor, “many crimes go unreported because of fears of being forced to come out. This makes it all the more important for law enforcement (and the community at large) to create a safe space for marginalized populations.”
Among the five categories of hate crimes, research shows those driven by sexual orientation are the most likely to target the victim’s person rather than property. As a result, this category’s one-fifth share in the overall count understates its actual share of violent crime.
|Bias-Motivated Crimes in New York City|
|Counts of Incidents by Bias Motivation|
|Frequency of Incidents by Bias Motivation|
Hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation also tend to be more violent than any other hate crime category and, as a result, even less likely to be reported, according to UCLA’s Edward Dunbar. Even using figures that under-report incidents tenfold, the size of the gay and lesbian population means this group faces hate crimes at “six times the overall rate,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
There’s little chance that gunshots in the broad daylight of a Saturday morning on the busiest street in Bushwick won’t be reported, of course. When preceded by what court filings refer to as shouts of “Ya'll faggots, men dressing like women, tranny, drag queens,” establishing the defendants’ bias may also not require much of police or prosecutors. Not all hate crimes are as public or as clearly bias-motivated as September’s Broadway shooting though.
The high-profile Ricardo Muniz case occurred at night, with no witnesses and no reporting. It also illustrates why minority groups may be reluctant to report crimes against them. Returning home late at night, the Bushwick resident was approached by two men wielding a bat and calling him “faggot.” He fought back and injured one of the men. Muniz was charged with assault and held in Rikers for two years as his case wound through the courts. No charges, hate crime or otherwise, were ever filed against his attackers.
The case remains an example to marginalized communities of the risks posed by reporting violence against them. In Muniz’s case, he was targeted by his attackers for being gay and targeted by police for being undocumented. Besides hosting a large LGBT community, Bushwick has the city’s second-largest undocumented population. Being both gay undocumented, Muniz lived in what scholars call “the double closet.” His attorney Deron Castro noted that “his [immigration] status was a factor in his hesitancy to contact police and I think his instincts were right. He shouldn’t have trusted law enforcement. They charged him after they learned about his status.”
Muniz still lives in Brooklyn. He eventually won his freedom in 2011 and a deportation challenge in the following years. However, according to Natalia Aristizabal, the LGBT Coordinator at local organizing group Make the Road, between cases like Muniz’s and Bushwick’s extraordinarily high number of stop-and-frisk incidents, minority communities are deeply hesitant to engage police. “In an area like Bushwick where police tend to stop people of color because of the way they look, it’s very hard to create a trusting relationship between LGBT individuals, people of color, and the police,” said Aristizabal.
With so many hate crimes going under-reported, and so many of the under-reported among the most violent, critics believe Brooklyn’s newly created Hate Crimes Unit won’t affect the root of the problem without first tackling police perception and practices in the borough.
While the unit came about as a response to rising hate crime, Brooklyn may simply be playing catch-up on paper. According to the American Bar Association, Manhattan has had a Hate Crimes Unit since 2010 and Queens has had one since 1987. Brooklyn has seen more hate crimes than any other borough or county in New York for as long as numbers have been reported, but it’s only now that prosecution of these crimes have received dedicated resources in Brooklyn. As observers see it though, the borough’s policing needs to follow suit for there to be any real impact.
|New York Counties with the Most Hate Crimes|
|Brooklyn (Kings County)||92||135||106||157||123|
|Manhattan (New York County)||70||94||60||93||100|
|Staten Island (Richmond County)||19||42||8||26||20|