Hate on the Rise: Arkansas one of few states without hate crimes statute

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Charleston, South Carolina and Orlando, Florida.

These are two cities that are now synonymous with horrific hate crimes that took the lives of innocent people.

We've seen hate crimes and just hateful acts all across our country. Just this week, a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee was hit again.

Right here in Memphis, police are investigating a possible hate crime after an openly gay teenager was beaten up recently.

His grandmother, Williemae Williams, was visibly upset when describing the incident to WREG.

"He said they said 'this n***** sweet and gay,' and four of them started whooping him," said Williams when she spoke to WREG right after the incident.

The latest FBI statistics from 2015, released in late 2016, show an increase in hate crimes compared to the previous year.

Agencies from across the country reported some 5,800 incidents (single bias). There were more than 7,000 victims.

Mid-South States

Total Offenses Reported

  • Arkansas- 8 (5 total number of incidents reported)
  • Mississippi- 0
  • Tennessee- 294 (221 total number of incidents reported)

In more than half, the victim was targeted because of race.  The bulk of the crimes nationwide fell into three categories: intimidation, simple assault and aggravated assault.

However, the data can be deceiving, because reporting is voluntary. This table shows information about participating agencies.

Tennessee ranks ninth in the nation for hate crimes (total offenses and total number of incidents reported).

The data collected by the agency shows roughly 13 percent of Tennessee agencies submitted information. That might seem low, however, it's one of the states where several agencies actually report data.

In 2015, 61 agencies submitted incident reports for a total 221 incidents reported.

Tennessee Hate Crimes by City

Memphis reported 17 (8-sexual orientation; 7-race; 1-religion; 1-gender identity) incidents. Under metropolitan counties, 30 incidents were listed for Shelby County.

However, for that same year, not one agency in Mississippi submitted an incident report. That column reads "0."

In Arkansas, out of 279 participating agencies, only four agencies submitted reports, for a total of five incidents reported.

Rep. Greg Leding's district covers the Fayetteville area.

"When you look at hate crime statistics, fortunately Arkansas does not rank near the top, but I do believe and other legislators believe that these hate crimes tend to go underreported, if not unreported all together," said Rep. Leding.

He added, "I would certainly hope that if we had a strong robust law on the books, people would feel more confident in reporting hate crimes."

Arkansas is also one of only four states in the country without a hate crimes statute on the books.

"It's absolutely troubling to see that Arkansas not only is one of just four states without a law on the books, but as recently as 2015 had the highest number of active hate groups per capita in the country."

Hate Groups Map (Southern Poverty Law Center)

So, the state home to the KKK, new alt-right groups and a legacy overcome by the Little Rock Nine doesn't have a law specifically protecting victims of hate.

Rep. Leding introduced a bill in the 2017 session to change that.

"I think it would help send a message that Arkansas doesn't tolerate hate."

House Bill 2088 proposed increased penalties for criminal offenses committed because of a victim's race, religion or sexual orientation, along with other bias motivations.

A defendant found guilty would face stiffer penalties in a second phase of a trial.

Leding explained, "There would be a trial to determine the guilt of the individual and then a separate trial to determine whether or not the person committed the crime based on hate."

The bill never even made it out of committee.  It failed on a voice vote. Leding says they initially had support.

He says those in opposition usually say there's no need for a separate law.

"I think one of the misconceptions is we're not saying any one crime is more important than another, but what often happens with hate crimes is you're not just terrorizing one individual, you're terrorizing an entire community who don't feel safe."

Arkansas has fiscal legislative sessions during even years, but Leding says if he's back in 2019, he'll file another hate crimes bill.

"In the meantime, I'll be reaching out to colleagues in the legislature to try and build support, but also to just individuals and groups across the state that feel this is an important issue that needs to be addressed."

In addition to its work tracking hate groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center is also now tracking hate, or bias incidents in real time.

Outreach Director Lecia Brooks explained, "The Southern Poverty Law Center began collecting the data on hate and bias incidents November 9th, within 10 days, we had over 900 reported incidents of hate or bias across the country."

Brooks says shining a light on the problems early could prevent crimes in the future.

"It's a really, really serious issue because hate incidents really are indicators of hate crimes to come. If people are shouting biased and bigoted things, we want to stop that before it turns into an actual crime."

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