By Michael E. Miller,
As suspected hate crimes soared in the District in recent years, worried activists repeatedly turned to federal prosecutors for information about cases, but received little.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which handles most criminal cases in the capital, said it was not keeping track of hate-crime prosecutions.
That changed Wednesday when prosecutors released long-sought statistics showing hate-crime prosecutions rose sharply in the District last year after plummeting to their lowest point in at least a decade.
The U.S. attorney’s office said at a community meeting that it had charged 11 incidents from 2019 as hate crimes — double the total in 2017 and 2018 combined.
The figures are the first released since Jessie K. Liu took over as U.S. attorney for the District in 2017. They came in response to pressure from local officials and activists, who criticized Liu after The Washington Post revealed last summer that hate-crime prosecutions had fallen to record lows while hate-crime reports were at record highs.
“We are scrutinizing these cases,” Renata Cooper, an assistant U.S. attorney and special counsel for policy and legislative affairs, said after the meeting. “I don’t think we ought to be penalized for acknowledging that, in response to community feedback, that is what we are doing.”
Local officials and activists welcomed the uptick.
“The statistics seem to indicate a step in the right direction,” said Mike Silverstein, an ANC commissioner in Ward 2.
“I think it’s a good start,” added Monika Nemeth, an ANC commissioner in Ward 3. “There looks like there is more transparency.”
“When we have accountability, we have hope,” said Ruby Corado, a prominent D.C. advocate for LGBTQ rights.
The District is the only place in the country where local crimes are prosecuted by the U.S. attorney’s office, whose leader is appointed by the president. Advocates say the setup makes it hard to hold prosecutors accountable, especially in a city where Donald Trump won just 4 percent of the vote in 2016.
D.C. police referred a record 113 cases as suspected hate crimes in 2017 and 2018, but the U.S. attorney’s office prosecuted only five of them as bias-related crimes, and none have resulted in hate-crime convictions, The Post found. Three cases ended in convictions but not for hate crimes, and one case was dropped completely. The fifth case is ongoing.
Liu’s office recently prosecuted two older cases — one from 2017 and another from 2018 — as hate crimes, bringing the combined total for those two years to seven.
On Wednesday, officials announced that they had already eclipsed that tally for 2019 — with the possibility of prosecuting more 2019 incidents as hate crimes in the months to come.
The statistics were presented at a meeting of the Hate Bias Task Force, which includes police, prosecutors and advocacy group leaders.
There were 201 suspected hate crimes in 2019, down slightly from the record high a year earlier of 204, police announced.
“We’re not going to drop the confetti and balloons yet,” Lt. Brett Parson, commander of the Special Liaison Branch, told those in attendance. “But we are hoping this is now a trend we see in the next several years, that it plateaus or begins to drop.”
Police have a lower threshold for labeling an incident a hate crime than prosecutors, who must prove bias beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a hate-crime conviction, Parson noted.
Brittany Keil, a veteran prosecutor who was one of two hate-crime coordinators appointed by Liu last summer as a response to community outrage, said the U.S. attorney’s office filed some kind of charges in 43 of the 52 cases that police referred for prosecution.
Eight of those cases led to hate-crime charges, Keil said. Prosecutors also filed bias enhancements in three cases that had not been flagged by police as hate crimes.
“We are actively looking at these cases and prosecuting them appropriately,” she said.
In two of the 11 hate-crime cases, however, prosecutors dropped the bias enhancement as part of a plea deal, Keil said. Five cases are set for trial, and four more have hearings scheduled.
Last month, a Post analysis of thousands of Superior Court records found the U.S. attorney’s office had filed hate-crime charges in seven incidents from 2019. That analysis did not include four cases revealed by prosecutors on Wednesday. One case was not filed until this month. And in three others, the bias enhancement was not listed in the online court docket.
Though encouraged by the increase in hate-crime prosecutions, Silverstein said he was worried more bias enhancements might be dropped in exchange for plea agreements.
“It is important that these crimes be prosecuted for what they are — hate crimes — and not treated as bargaining chips on plea deals,” he said.
“I hope the message is getting through,” Silverstein added, “that when you bargain away the hate crime enhancement, you are bargaining away the dignity of the victim of the crime.”
Corado said she thought pressure from activists, politicians and the media had pushed the U.S. attorney’s office to once again focus on hate crimes.
“Now that this information is out in the community, people are saying, ‘Wait a minute, this is something that Washingtonians care about,’ ” she said. “I’m hoping that we see more change. I’m hoping that the conversation is not over.”
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