With Pride events taking place in Missoula this weekend, members of criminal justice and administrative staff at the state and local levels gathered on Friday to discuss how hate crimes in Montana are investigated and handled by law enforcement.
Anti-LGBTQ+ laws swept the country during the latest round of state legislature sessions, but hatred against LGBTQ+ people in Montana has been documented locally as well.
“We have not seen national and international incidents solely based on hate,” Jesse Laslovich, the U.S. Attorney for Montana, said during the hearing hosted by the University of Montana’s Alexander Blewett III School of Law. “We’ve seen it here, in Montana, where there has been an increase in hate speech against historically marginalized groups, like members of our LGBTQ+ community.
“With the recently concluded Montana legislative session, new laws have targeted transgender youth and prostitution communities.”
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Missoula Rep. Zoe Zephyr, one of the first transgender state legislators in Montana, It was criticized in the last legislative sessionand homophobic neo-Nazis Showed up on Seeing Through Missoula in March.
Montana Pride President Kevin Hamm asked the committee what they are doing to address hate speech from neo-Nazis who show up at Pride events in Montana.
“How do you take that seriously?” – Ham asked.
Missoula Police Detective Ethan Smith works for the department’s LGBTQ+ Community Liaison Office.
Smith said he monitors social media posts and decides what to focus resources on.
“My biggest concern, of course, is that if there’s something dynamic, it’s going to happen at an event like this,” Smith said of the Missoula Pride events. “So we’re investigating those things.”
He said the department has safety procedures and a security plan in place in the event of a large, violent protest.
There were 17 Montana-specific hate crimes reported in 2021, said Paul Vestal, Assistant U.S. Attorney and Civil Rights Coordinator.
This week, montana man He was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for threatening a woman with violent, homophobic slurs and shooting up her home with an AK-47 assault rifle as part of a self-described “mission” to “clean” the small town of the LGBTQ community.
In may exhale I faced threats of “beating”.. “Swatting” refers to a dangerous tactic of nuisance calls in which a caller falsely reports a crime in an area, usually someone’s home, with the goal of provoking a law enforcement response to the person’s location.
“Someone reported an anonymous tip targeting my home in Missoula, and police realized it was likely a hoax and contacted me,” Zephyr wrote on Twitter. “I will say it again. We will not be deterred. The fight for transgender rights continues.”
When asked if those threats had been investigated, Smith said he was determined they were not a direct threat.
Vestal noted that underreporting of hate crimes is a problem across the country, citing data that 38% of victims did not report these crimes because the cases were handled differently, and nearly 23% of people refused to report due to concerns that The police can’t or won’t do that. Do anything to help.
An audience member asked what officers are doing to ensure hate crimes in Montana are taken seriously.
“The best thing we can do is make ourselves available and participate in events like this and open communication with members of our community because I completely agree with you,” Smith responded. “There are a lot of things that are underreported, and I think that’s our fault, not the community’s fault.”
Montana itself does not have a specific statewide hate crime law, but cases can be investigated for potential federal hate crime penalties.
“If a federal agency determines that a crime has been committed, or that a federal crime has been committed, they will refer it to us at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecution,” Vestal said.
Locally, there is what is called a “sentencing enhancement” for hate crimes, which means that if someone is charged with another crime such as assault with a weapon, there is a possibility that the enhancement could apply if the crime was based on hate. Local agencies such as the Missoula Police Department investigate crimes that occur in communities, which are then referred to county prosecutor’s offices for possible prosecution. Laslovic said his office is steadfast in protecting the civil rights of Montana residents.
Vestal and other members of the committee encouraged people to report any suspected hate crimes to local authorities or the FBI.
Zoe Bushley is the Criminal Justice Correspondent for The Missouri.