Experts: Idaho Law, Culture Complicates Hate Crime Response

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The number of hate crimes reported to law enforcement agencies dropped slightly in 2021, according to a report from the Idaho State Police, but experts say the state’s laws and culture make some people unlikely to report hate crimes and others unlikely to see justice when they do.

Idaho is one of 18 states that don't include hate crime protections for LGBTQ people, according to the advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign, though most local law enforcement agencies still track those crimes based on federal standards. Four of those states — Arkansas, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming — have no hate crime laws.

The Crime in Idaho annual reports show that dozens of hate crimes are reported to the state's law enforcement agencies every year. In 2021, 47 such crimes were reported — the bulk of them targeting people because of their race or ethnicity, followed by crimes targeting LGBTQ people. That's a slight drop from the previous year, when 54 hate crimes were reported.

But only a handful of hate crime perpetrators ever face malicious harassment charges in court, according to the Idaho Supreme Court's online database. Only six hate crime charges were filed in state courts in each of the last two years.

The state's numbers likely don't reflect the reality, because hate crimes are generally under-reported, said Chelsea Gaona-Lincoln with Add the Words, an organization that works to protect LGBTQ people from employment and housing discrimination and human rights violations.

“Who even feels safe reporting? As somebody who exists in a brown body, I wouldn’t feel safe going to law enforcement based on what we see from them, and the way we see certain law enforcement interact with the Proud Boys at rallies,” said Gaona-Lincoln.

She's not alone.

Nationwide, only about 44% of hate crime victimizations were reported to police between 2010 and 2019, according to a report examining hate crimes in the U.S. by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of those reported to police, only about 13% were confirmed by police investigators as hate crimes, though the remaining 87% also met the report's definition of a hate crime because the offender used hate language or left hate symbols at the crime scene.

Hate crime victims sometimes fear reprisals or choose to handle the issue another way. Some organizations, like Add the Words, have created mutual aid programs to assist marginalized people facing harassment outside of the court system. Add the Words' program has helped people get access to mental health providers, find new jobs where they won't have to interact with a known harasser, or leave places where their safety is at risk, Gaona-Lincoln said.

Dan Prinzing, the executive director of the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights, said there's been an increase in racist and anti-Semitic language in recent years, as well as attacks against the LGBTQ community. Last December, anti-Semitic flyers were left on doorsteps throughout Boise’s “North End” neighborhood. In 2020, someone pasted swastika stickers on the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in downtown Boise.

Neither incident was considered a hate crime under Idaho's law. That's because the law requires the harassment to intentionally target a specific person because of their race, color, religion, ancestry or national origin. Targeting an area, a public place or a church doesn't qualify, said Boise Police Detective Mike Miraglia.

Miraglia investigated when the anti-Semitic leaflets were left in the Boise neighborhood.

“I actually interviewed the person who did it,” Miraglia said. “That person did not articulate a specific target, simply the entire neighborhood. A lot of the times it comes down to that fine line.”

Miraglia turned the information over to the county prosecutor, who agreed it didn't meet the components of Idaho's law.

Tagging buildings with stickers or chalk also doesn't qualify, as long as it doesn't cause physical damage to the structure, he said. Some aggressors are choosing methods of harassment so that they can skirt the boundaries of the state law, Miraglia said.

“It would be nice if that code was updated,” Miraglia said. “But that's a task for the Legislature.”

Police spokeswoman Haley Williams said people should contact police if they feel like they've been targeted for harassment, because even if the case isn't prosecuted, the department can offer support, such as increased neighborhood patrols.

Lately, lawmakers have been reluctant to tackle discrimination, said Prinzing. The Legislature has passed multiple laws in recent years specifically targeting transgender people, and a few years ago rejected a proposed license plate declaring Idaho “Too Great for Hate.”

“Are we so afraid to call out what is hate? There was a time in our state history where leadership became not only vocal, they also took actions,” Prinzing said, referencing decades-old efforts by state leaders to denounce the Aryan Nations group, which built a compound in northern Idaho in the mid-1970s. The neo-Nazi group was eventually forced out of the state a quarter-century later when the organization was bankrupted by a civil lawsuit after two members attacked two Native American people who were passing by the compound.

“Law enforcement can only do so much. Prosecution can only go so far,” Prinzing said. “Idaho lacks a clear definition of what is a hate crime.”