Federal and Maryland officials launch reviews of hate crime reporting, laws after Pittsburgh synagogue attack

Federal and state officials are launching reviews of hate crime laws and reporting practices after a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a rise in anti-Jewish incidents in Maryland — searching for what more can be done to stop a surge of anti-Semitism in the United States.

Maryland lawmakers told The Baltimore Sun they were starting a review of state laws after a rise in bias incidents here.

Meanwhile, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, formerly the top federal prosecutor in Maryland, said he was examining the way hate crimes are reported. Rosenstein pledged to vigorously prosecute such crimes after the shooting Saturday that killed 11 people inside the synagogue.

“The tragic attack at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue two days ago serves as a stark reminder of the need to protect all Americans against hate crime,” Rosenstein told a roundtable of law enforcement officials in Washington.

The assailant identified by police had reportedly spewed a rash of anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish messages online, calling immigrants “invaders” and saying Jews were the “enemy of white people.”

Rosenstein said Monday that the U.S. Justice Department will fund a national survey of 3,000 law enforcement agencies to collect information about reporting rates and a follow-up survey of 250 prosecutors about cases that ended in arrests. He noted that the 88 percent of agencies providing hate crime data to the FBI reported none in 2016.

“We are reviewing the accuracy of those reports,” Rosenstein said.

His comments came as Maryland lawmakers said they were reviewing hate crime laws. The examination is being spearheaded by Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Democrat from Baltimore who sponsored Maryland’s 1988 hate crime law.

“We’re looking at whether there are hate-filled actions not protected by the First Amendment that should be covered in the hate crime law,” he said. “We want to see if the law adequately covers action on the internet and other public forums.”

Rosenberg said he will re-introduce legislation that would apply stiffer penalties to those who threaten to commit hate crimes, such as someone who calls in a bomb threat to a Jewish community center.

Anti-Jewish incidents reported to police in Maryland jumped 47 percent in 2017 to 78 incidents, according to a Baltimore Sun review of records. That was amid a 35 percent increase of overall hate or bias incidents reported to police statewide last year.

The reports included anonymous threats and messages that referenced the mass murder of Jews by German Nazis in World War II. A rabbi in Montgomery County received several emails and text messages, including "holocaust Jews want all of you in Camps ASAP swastika, swastika, swastika, burn in the chamber shower." In Baltimore County, a Jewish man received a voicemail and call from stating "Holocaust is a lie. … You can't stop the (death or blood) … Heil Hitler … six million Jews.”

Maryland legislators passed hate crime-related legislation earlier this year after reported hate incidents began to climb during the 2016 presidential campaign. One bill added nooses and swastikas as defacement within hate crime laws. Another modified the law to include groups of people that can be afflicted by racially motivated crimes.

State Sen. Robert Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, will reintroduce anti-cyber bulling legislation that would apply to online harassment due to one’s faith or race. It seeks to close loopholes in laws regulating online harassment.

“You can’t criminalize somebody just for being a bigot,” Zirkin said. “Even the worst of the worst of people’s thoughts are covered by the First Amendment. That said, when it bridges into threats, intimidation or tormenting, when it’s directed at an individual or groups, you can take action.”

A Baltimore Sun analysis of hate incidents found that 80 percent of the state’s 161 law enforcement agencies reported no hate or bias incidents during the last two years. Reporting on the Eastern Shore of Maryland was especially thin; Caroline and Kent counties haven’t reported any hate or bias incidents over the last six years.

The Maryland State Police conducted a hate and bias training session in April for law enforcement agencies across the state. The training came after The Sun reported that the 2016 FBI hate crimes report included less than half of the hate crimes in Maryland than it should have, due to late reporting by police agencies.

A state police spokesperson told The Sun on Tuesday that the agency plans to have four more sessions in the coming year in cooperation with the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League and the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights.

Howard Libit, the executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, called the online harassment of Jewish journalists and others online “horrible.”

“People who have hate in their hearts are feeling emboldened to act out more and more and it’s really troubling,” Libit said. “Clearly, the significant rise we’ve seen in reported hate crimes and the rise we see in unreported hate crimes merits all of us looking again at all of our hate crime laws and seeing what more we can do. We ought to take another look across the board to see what we can do to help deter, help prevent and help punish.”

The Baltimore Sun is partnering with newsrooms around the country in a ProPublica-led project to collect recent and reliable data on hate crimes in the United States. If you have been the victim of a hate crime, please use this form to contribute to this database.

crentz@baltsun.com

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