Hate crimes reporting said to be lax in W.Va.

October 31, 2000

Hate crimes reporting said to be lax in W.Va.

By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

CHARLES TOWN, W. Va. - Hate crimes happen in West Virginia virtually every day.

That was part of the message delivered Tuesday night by a senior U.S. assistant attorney general to about 70 people gathered at St. Paul's Episcopal Church to discuss the issue.

"It's not a rare situation," said Paul Sheridan, coordinator of a hate crimes task force and a lawyer in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. "I thought it was historical. I thought it happened some other place, some other time. If not a daily event, it's a regular event. It happens all over our state on a daily basis."

Jefferson County has had two publicized hate crime incidents recently. The meeting was sponsored by Friends Advancing Intercultural Relations, the Jefferson County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the West Virginia Lesbian and Gay Coalition.


"This is a very nasty problem," said FAIR President Bob Winget as he introduced Sheridan.

Sheridan began by relating two stories from the state. One involved a family driven from their home by threats, slashed tires and a gunshot through the window. Another centered on two 14-year-old friends, one black and one white, who were constantly harassed by other teenagers.

The state has both criminal and civil laws against hate crimes, which Sheridan said could just as easily be called "bias crimes."

"The target of the crime is chosen because of some difference,' Sheridan said. The FBI reports about 10,000 incidents annually, although Sheridan said the crime is vastly underreported. Mississippi reported no crimes, for example, and not all West Virginia law enforcement agencies report them. He said about 60 hate crimes would be reported in the state if all jurisdictions were keeping track.

About 60 percent are racial, with most of those against African-Americans; 15 percent are religious; 14 percent are based on sexual orientation, which is not covered by the state law; and about 10 percent are based on ethnicity.

Despite the public perception that many are committed by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, most are actually committed by "thrill seekers" - usually young, white, male and bored.

"There will be nothing going on a Friday night and they'll say 'wouldn't it be great to beat somebody up when they come out of the gay bar' or paint the Jewish cemetery or throw a rock through a minority person's home," Sheridan said.

Most of the audience questions were directed at police response to the incidents. About a dozen police officers attended the meeting. Training law officers is one key to getting a handle on the problem, Sheridan said. Another action is designating a civil rights officer in each department. Another is working with schools setting up student civil rights teams.

But several people said police need to respond more quickly when incidents occur.

"I would hope if somebody has a complaint, they would call me," said Charles Town Police Chief Mike Aldridge. "You shouldn't have to wait for a designated civil rights officer."

But he and other police officials noted they are short of officers, making it difficult to respond to these kinds of complaints as quickly as they would like.

Members of the audience said they have been victimized by hate crimes and said they need to know who to call when such incidents occur.

The Herald-Mail Articles