The Law that Bears Matt’s Name: Six Years Later

On this day in 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, marking the inclusion of language for sexual orientation and gender identity and expression into the federal hate crimes law.

For the past six years, the Matthew Shepard Foundation has been able to better serve communities in our mission to Erase Hate by using the data collected in the Uniform Crime Report, released annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. While hate crimes statistics were gathered for crimes motivated by sexual orientation before federal jurisdiction applied to them, prior to the Shepard-Byrd Act there was no designation for hate crimes with a gender identity-bias, and this addition has been invaluable in obtaining a better understanding of where hate exists in our communities.

By the end of 2013, the Department of Justice reported that 44 people in 16 states had been convicted under the Shepard-Byrd Act, and last year the White House reported a 50% increase in the number of defendants being charged with hate crimes or related charges, many under the law that bears Matt’s name. Just this past February, three men in Jackson, Mississippi were sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to violating the Shepard-Byrd Act for their murder of James Craig Anderson, which was classified as a racially-motivated hate crime.

But after nearly a decade of advocating for the act to be signed, the law still contained flaws, including the fact that reporting is still completely voluntary, leaving several gaps in data collection in various communities throughout the country. Since launching our Hate Crimes Reporting and Prevention Initiative at the beginning of 2015, the Foundation is dedicated to helping improve reporting practices and strengthen the understanding of the Shepard-Byrd Act.

Today, October 28, Judy and Dennis Shepard are attending a hate crimes training in Salem, Oregon, as part of the Foundation’s Hate Crimes Reporting and Prevention Initiative. This program, which launched in January of this year, is in partnership with the Department of Justice to better improve the accuracy of hate crimes data that local law enforcement agencies report to the FBI.  

Here’s how we’re working to improve and strengthen reporting under the Shepard-Byrd Act:

A Local Approach

By partnering with regional U.S. Attorney’s offices across the country, we’re afforded the unique opportunity to discuss the specifications of the Shepard-Byrd Act with law enforcement officers at the local level. We prioritize educating those who are first to arrive to the scene of a crime on how to recognize the signs of a hate crime—patterns of overkill violence, hate group affiliation, etc.—so the information can be documented in initial reports. By knowing the law exists and the area of crimes it covers, law enforcement officials can investigate and charge assailants with hate crimes from the very first 9-1-1 call. Our goal is to prevent the number of false reports and increase participation in hate crimes data collection by all levels of law enforcement.

Building Community Trust

Because we have the opportunity to interact with law enforcement at the local level, we also take the time to encourage civilian community members to participate in our trainings to better understand the Shepard-Byrd Act and contribute to reporting efforts. Historically, relationships between law enforcement and marginalized groups—who are the predominant victims of hate crime attacks—have largely been wary. Establishing trust between police officers and community residents is essential to the eradication of hate crimes—victims must feel confident their reports will be taken seriously and documented accurately without consequence, and investigators and prosecutors cannot properly charge assailants with a hate crime if information is being withheld by the community. The Foundation helps to bring these groups together in the pursuit of fair treatment and justice under the law.

Encouraging New Reporting Practices and Knowledge of the Act

Due to our partnership with federal agencies, the Foundation is well informed on the latest reporting practices, including the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which was “created to improve the quantity and quality of crime data collected by law enforcement by capturing more detailed information on each single crime occurrence.” The Shepard-Byrd Act considerably widened the range of hate crimes the federal government can charge and investigate, making the process a lot more straightforward. With more detailed reporting systems like the NIBRS and a clear understanding of the types of crimes law enforcement personnel are able to investigate (as not all are acts of physical violence), we’re able to encourage more detailed reporting on an individual basis. Additionally, we’ve discovered through our local and regional outreach that some state hate crimes laws are often more effective in identifying and prosecuting hate crimes. Combining the federal knowledge of the Shepard-Byrd Act with an understanding of local laws and statutes, law enforcement officials are better equipped to determine the best course of action when identifying and reporting hate crimes.