By BRANDON HOWELL
Capital News Service
LANSING – Reported hate crimes have declined in Michigan, including the southwestern part of the state.
Michigan fell from having the third- to fourth-highest number of hate crimes reported nationally between 2006 and 2008, according to the FBI. Core said reported hate crimes increased by 2 percent for the country during that same time.
In 2006, there were 653 reported hate crimes in the state compared to 560 in 2008.
Michigan still has among the worst in the nation because law enforcement officials are serious about hate crime, according to Harold Core, director of public affairs for the state’s Department of Civil Rights.
“There is no federal law that requires crimes to be reported as hate crimes,” he said. “Our numbers show that we take it seriously in Michigan.”
According to the FBI, hate crimes are motivated by bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity.
County officials in Southwest Michigan say hate crimes are rare and aren’t a problem.
“I can’t think of the last time we had a hate crime,” St. Joseph County Prosecutor John McDonough said. “We’ve had a couple of instances where an ethnic intimidation charge has been made or maybe a couple of gangbangers intimidated a group of Hispanics or something like that, but they have been very limited.”
McDonough said, “We have a small black population in Three Rivers and we have a small-to-medium Hispanic population in Sturgis. Other than that, we really don’t have a lot of diversity. You just don’t hear about hate crimes here.”
Core said hate crimes are down because of awareness and training his department and the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes have provided.
From 2007 to 2009, the department and alliance trained about 6,000 crime victim advocates in building cultural competence and hate crime awareness, Core said.
There also were meetings with law enforcement agencies and development of a police and community relations training program, according to Core.
“All of that training helped community leaders, police and prosecutors throughout the state to become more sensitive with hate crime incidents so that they were better able to tend to areas with tension before it became an incident.
“Sharing with the community how important diversity issues are helped to discourage ethnic and religious tension from going further,” Core said.
The department also holds an annual conference focused on recognizing hate-group activities and how to deal with racial and ethnic tension in schools, among other topics.
“By getting that information out there, we really made people more aware so that they’re better able to deal with these issues before they became incidents,” Core said.
Incidents aren’t classified as hate crimes unless they involve a physical component, according to Berrien County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Michael Sepic.
“You can have a disturbance where something is said about ethnicity, but it’s just a disturbance,” he said. “There might have been a bunch of racial stuff going back and forth, but if it didn’t result in an actual physical assault, it’s not a hate crime.”
Sepic said hate crimes happen in Berrien County, but they’re not increasing.
“They’re very few and far between,” he said. “We probably have one or two cases of ethnic intimidation a year, but it isn’t predominant. There aren’t very many that we charge.”
Sepic said there are many disturbances that occur because of ethnic, racial or religious reasons, such as escalated bar arguments, but they don’t qualify as hate crimes.
Capt. Lyndon Parrish of the Cass County Sheriff’s Department said hate crimes are practically nonexistent there as well.
“We have not had a reported incident of that this year or any that I’m aware of last year,” he said.
Parrish said Cass County has had some cases of graffiti where hate was initially a suspected motive. They turned out otherwise, though.
“We were able to determine that there wasn’t any malicious intent to any race, creed or color,” he said. “It just happened to be somebody marking up things.”
Van Buren County Prosecutor Juris Kaps said he can’t remember the last hate crime reported in the county.
Kaps said he believes hate crimes are few in the county because residents are more sensible than to engage in that kind of behavior.
“I like to think we’re better than doing that sort of thing,” he said.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.