November 6, 2014 at 7:24 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Obama recognizes 5-year anniversary of Matthew Shepard Act
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The signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act took place in 2009. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

On the fifth-year anniversary of his signing of the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, President Obama issued a statement saying the law has “strengthened the protections” against bias-motivated violent crimes.

“This law gave the Justice Department new tools for prosecuting criminals,” Obama said Thursday. “It directed new resources to law enforcement agencies, so they could better serve their communities. And it did what we want all our laws to do: it reflected and strengthened our core national values. By recognizing violent bigotry as an especially dangerous crime – one that not only harms individuals, but threatens the social fabric that binds our country together – the Shepard Byrd Hate Crimes Act has made it possible for more Americans to live freely, openly and safely, and has reinforced our nation’s sacred commitment to equality for all.”

The law, signed by President Obama in 2009, enables the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute crimes motivated by race, color, religion and national origin without having to demonstrate the perpetuator was engaged in a federally protected activity. It also empowers the administration to prosecute violent acts committed on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender or disability as hate crimes.

Also on Thursday, the White House hosted an event to announce several initiatives to strengthen hate crime prevention work, an official said. During the event, the Justice Department, including the FBI, Civil Rights Division, Community Relations Service, and U.S. attorneys, held a panel discussion about their work preventing and responding to hate violence, the official said.

According to the White House, event attendees included Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Munoz; Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett; Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Vanita Gupta; FBI Director James Comey; Labor Secretary Thomas Perez; and Judy and Dennis Shepard; the parents of Matthew Shepard.

The new initiatives, as announced by the administration, follow:

* Interagency Initiative on Hate Crimes — The White House is launching the Interagency Initiative on Hate Crimes. The Initiative, coordinated by the White House Domestic Policy Council, will include DOJ, the FBI, ED, DHS, State Department and HHS, and will address prevention of violent hate crimes, as well as effective responses to hate crimes. The quarterly meetings will ensure effective collaboration across agencies, as well as the sharing of best practices in working with communities that may be targeted for hate crimes.

* Expanding Use of Incident Based Crime Data — Through the National Crime Statistics-Exchange (NCS-X), FBI and BJS are working to increase the participation of a sample of law enforcement agencies in the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) in order to create a nationally-representative system of incident-based crime statistics of crimes known to the police.

* Training for State and Local Law Enforcement and Community Leaders on Hate Crimes — The Civil Rights Division, FBI, and CRS have committed to conducting a series of trainings on the Shepard Byrd Act around the country for state and local law enforcement agencies and community leaders.

* CRS Hate Crimes Forums — As a part of the 5th Anniversary of the Shepard Byrd Act, USDOJ, Community Relations Service will have conducted 10 forums across the country by November 6 to engage community leaders, advocates, educators, state and local government officials, and law enforcement agencies to talk about how they can work together to prevent and more effectively respond to hate crimes.

* Attorney General Holder Letter to all USAOs re: Enforcement of Hate Prevention Crimes Act and engagement with community leaders — The Attorney General will issue a memorandum to USAOs around the country highlighting the effective work that the Department has done in enforcing the Act, emphasizing the continued need for engaging community leaders and local law enforcement on a regular basis.

Here’s Obama’s complete statement on the anniversary of the Matthew Shepard Act:

Five years ago, I was proud to sign the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act into law – a law that strengthened the protections against crimes based on the color of our skin, the love in our hearts, the faith we practice, or the place of our birth.

This law gave the Justice Department new tools for prosecuting criminals. It directed new resources to law enforcement agencies, so they could better serve their communities. And it did what we want all our laws to do: it reflected and strengthened our core national values. By recognizing violent bigotry as an especially dangerous crime – one that not only harms individuals, but threatens the social fabric that binds our country together – the Shepard Byrd Hate Crimes Act has made it possible for more Americans to live freely, openly and safely, and has reinforced our nation’s sacred commitment to equality for all.

Since this law was passed, the FBI and Department of Justice have vigorously investigated and prosecuted dozens of hate crime cases nationwide, including attacks on minorities, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities. The number of individuals charged with hate crimes has increased significantly over the past five years. And state and local law enforcement officers and other community members have received training in how to recognize and address hate crimes. The law is working.

Our job isn’t done. We must continue to stand together against intolerance and hate wherever they occur, and respond decisively when they lead to violence. Ours is a country built on the notion that all people are created equal. It’s up to us to make that ideal real, in our words and deeds as well as in our laws – to ensure that, in America, everyone is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve, no matter who they are or who they love.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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