October 21, 2015 at 5:16 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Franken seeks answers from DOJ on transgender murders
Al Franken, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade, United States Senate, U.S. Congress, Minnesota

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Amid a record number of anti-trans murders throughout the country, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is seeking answers from the Obama administration on reporting of the violence and the extent to which the federal government is working with local authorities.

In a letter dated Oct. 21, the junior senator from Minnesota calls on U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James Comey to take action.

“I write to express serious concern about the alarming number of homicides and violent crimes targeting transgender and gender nonconforming people,” Franken writes. “I strongly urge the U.S. Department of Justice to work with state and local authorities in the investigation and prosecution of these incidents, and to redouble its efforts to ensure the accurate reporting of all bias-motivated crimes.”

Franken takes note of Zella Ziona, who was shot to death in Maryland last week and became the 21st trans murder victim this year. The Washington Blade reported investigators believe she may have been shot after she approached the suspect in public and embarrassed him in front of his friends. A prosecutor told the Blade subsequently that Ziona and the suspect were romantically involved.

Taking note that police and some media reports misidentified Ziona as male, Franken says federal law doesn’t require state or local authorities to report incidents of anti-trans violence. The senator calls for an update on the Justice Department’s work on tracking bias-motivated crime, saying underreporting anti-trans violence “obscures the threats many of our citizens endure every day.”

“I applaud the Department of Justice and the FBI for their enforcement efforts to date, as well as the Department’s work to train federal, state, and local law enforcement officers to respond appropriately and effectively to reports of bias-motivated violence,” Franken said. “However, accurate data on the frequency and severity of attacks is needed in order to direct prevention and enforcement efforts to the jurisdictions most in need of assistance.”

The senator also calls on the Justice Department to work closely with local authorities to investigate and prosecute hate crimes against transgender people as prescribed by the federal hate crimes law signed by President Obama in 2009.

“There are indications that distrust in law enforcement among LGBT communities, and inaccurate or disrespectful reporting regarding transgender victims, have been barriers to investigations,” Franken writes. “The Department should develop a model policy for law enforcement agencies on interactions with LGBT and gender nonconforming individuals and guidance on public communications regarding crimes against members of the transgender community.”

Michael Silverman, executive director of the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, applauded Franken in a statement to the Washington Blade for calling on the Obama administration to take action.

“Measures must be put in place to track anti-transgender hate crimes at the state and local level,”Silverman said. “We urge implementation of a model policy to help law enforcement treat transgender people with the dignity and respect they deserve, and to communicate with the public appropriately about transgender people when they are the victims of hate crimes.”

A spokesperson for the FBI confirmed the agency received the letter, but declined further comment.

The Blade has placed a call to the Justice Department to respond to Franken’s letter.

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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