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There has been a spike in hate crimes across this country, and police departments are under pressure to respond. Sometimes, they lack the resources. And sometimes, they lack the will to educate officers. A group of veteran prosecutors and federal agents is trying to change that. NPR's Hannah Allam went to a workshop in Durham, N.H., and she brought back this story.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi, there. Did you register?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I got the email.
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: It's 8:30 in the morning, and about 50 officers from different police departments - some in plain clothes, some in uniform - file into an auditorium at the University of New Hampshire. They greet old friends and make a beeline for the coffee and muffins.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hey, Johnny. How are you? Nice to see you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Nice to see you.
ALLAM: But once they settle into their seats, the mood turns serious.
ALBERT MOSKOWITZ: Maybe we should start with, you know, hate crimes.
ALLAM: Trainer Albert Moskowitz is a former senior Justice Department prosecutor. He poses the big question many cops have about hate crime laws.
MOSKOWITZ: Do we need them? What do you think?
ALLAM: At first nobody responds. Then one officer, fidgeting with his pen, says he supports the approach New Hampshire takes now. No state hate crime law but prosecutors can seek tougher sentencing when bias is the motivation. Moskowitz pushes the officer to explain why bias should even be a factor if there's no hate crime law.
MOSKOWITZ: So you're saying that somehow, these crimes are more serious than they would otherwise be.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I wouldn't say more serious it's just that - I'll consider it more serious. But assault is assault no matter how you look at it.
MOSKOWITZ: Because assault against anybody is a serious crime, right? Yeah. So why would it be more serious if the assault is substantially motivated by the person's race or religion?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: It should be enhanced as far as penalties. But as far as seriousness, I don't know.
ALLAM: That back and forth happens at nearly every stop of this traveling workshop. It's put on by two advocacy groups, the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The trainers know they're wading into a long, simmering debate over hate crime laws.
CYNTHIA DEITLE: There's one side of the population that looks at hate crimes and sees laws that were passed to protect certain people. And why were those certain people more special than somebody else?
ALLAM: That's another trainer, Cynthia Deitle, a former FBI special agent who was in charge of the bureau's civil rights unit. She's now with the Matthew Shepard Foundation. She's done this training all over the country and says the mood each time is set by the local chief. Here in Durham, both the local and campus police departments welcomed it, as Durham Chief Dave Kurz made clear to his officers.
DAVE KURZ: As guardians of our community, it's important for us to understand that a simple misdemeanor rock being thrown through a window may be just that. But then again, it may not be just that.
ALLAM: Supporters of hate crime laws say the idea is to acknowledge the sweeping impact of targeting someone simply for who they are. The torching of a mosque is felt by the larger Muslim community, for example, just like the murder of a transwoman sends a message to others who identify as LGBT. Stratford County Attorney Thomas Velardi, who oversees Durham and the surrounding area, says he sees hate crime laws as restorative.
THOMAS VERLARDI: There are some people who are being singled out, and in some instances hurt. And we need to do something about that. And we're sort of struggling with, how do we respond to that? What do we do? And how do we do it?
ALLAM: The trainers are careful about the framing, stressing how it's just good police work to stay on top of hate incidents that might point to a trend or signal the formation of groups like the ones that wreaked havoc in Charlottesville, Va. Cynthia Deitle again.
DEITLE: None of us want you to be the next Charlottesville or the next Charleston or the next Pittsburgh. We don't want you to be that, but we don't know. And you need to be prepared.
ALLAM: Police in New Hampshire have already gotten a taste of how fast racist incidents can outpace their response. In the fall of 2017, a 7-year-old biracial boy was the victim of a racist attack on a school bus. In a separate incident, white teenagers allegedly put a rope around another biracial child's neck and pushed him off a picnic table. And the UNH campus was reeling after a complaint about the cultural appropriation of Cinco de Mayo spiraled into weeks of racial unrest.
PAUL DEAN: That time was sad, but there were opportunities.
ALLAM: That's University of New Hampshire Police Chief Paul Dean. He says this training is one of many ways he's making good on a promise to students to learn from 2017 and introduce change.
DEAN: Just because something has always been the way it is doesn't necessarily mean that's the right way. And we need to evolve if - you know, I just don't like the idea of somebody feeling uncomfortable in my community.
ALLAM: It's hard to say whether the chief's commitment has trickled down to the rank and file. During the training, few of the officers volunteered their thoughts. They opened up a little more over lunch.
ALLAM: Sitting around a table in the campus cafeteria, the officers used some of the language of hate crime skeptics. There's not an increase, it's just that there's more reporting now, or the media are quick to call something a hate crime without knowing the facts. Still, the officers say they see the training as helpful. The chiefs asked that we not use their names.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We don't train. If we don't stay on top of the current changes in laws and the attitudes in the climate, then we're going to pay a big price for that. And we'll lose the trust of the community, and we can't do that.
ALLAM: The trainers don't expect to change minds after a single workshop, but they say getting police to think about and talk about hate crimes is a start.
Hannah Allam, NPR News Durham, N.H.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOTHROYD'S "PURE COUNTRY")
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