CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — The parents of a man killed in 1998 because of his sexuality believe more law enforcement agencies reporting to federal crime statistics will help reduce hate crimes against the LGBT community.
Representatives from the Matthew Shepard Foundation visited the FBI complex in Harrison County to discuss their work and how the Criminal Justice Information Services Division can help advance it.
“If we can start that conversation, get agencies submitting national incident-based reporting crime statistics, that will put a spotlight on where the problems are,” said Stephen Morris, Assistant Director of the Criminal Justice Information Services Division said. “Then, politicians and lawmakers can start allocating resources to address those problems.”
In 1998, Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming by two men who abducted him, subjected him to torture and left him for dead.
The investigation into the crime led to life in prison for his murderers, but at a cost in resources to Albany County Sheriff David O’Malley and his department, as there were no hate crime laws in place in the country to allow the Department of Justice to assist in cases motivated by sexual orientation.
After years of advocating, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed in 2009, giving the DOJ the ability to investigate crimes motivated by sexual orientation when local agencies were unable or unwilling.
Since then, Matthew’s mother and father have led the Foundation to continued work for protections for the LGBT community and also see the incident-based reported as a means to identify areas where their work is needed.
“What we observe is that certain parts of the country get it and certain parts of the country don’t,” said Judy Shepard, president of the Foundation. “Some progress and some don’t. At a faster pace or at no pace or all, it’s very community driven. We’re actually hoping more privates citizens would encourage their law enforcement agencies to take part.”
The visit coincided with the FBI’s Monday release of its “Crime in the United States” report, a breakdown of reported crimes committed in the year 2014.
While the reports provide a look into crime trends over the years, they admittedly can not provide a completely accurate account, as the reporting is voluntary.
To their credit, Morris believes the reason a lot of agencies do not submit their statistics is the same reason they are unable to investigate hate crimes like the one committed against Shepard.
“In the investigation of Matthew’s death, it consumed so many resources from that department they had to furlough officers just to offset that expense,” he said. “It really comes down to a resource problem. Every officer they get, they put them on patrol. [Reporting] is just a matter of low priority.”
The hope is that improving the reporting method and technology will take some of the burden off of those agencies and provide incentive for them to do so.
Meanwhile, the Foundation is working in other areas for the LGBT community, which includes protections in state hate crime laws.
Matthew’s father, Dennis Shepard explained that such measures are a win-win for any state.
“[Hate crimes] go undetected and people start leaving that state or that community to go somewhere where they have the protections,” he said. “When that happens, the economy goes down a little bit. It makes business sense to have hate crime laws that protect everybody.”
Critics of such laws claim that it could potentially lead to vocal objections to homosexuality being considered hate crimes and further restrictions on the First Amendment –the federal definition of a hate crime includes traditional offenses of murder, arson or vandalism.
Dennis counters that what they are seeking is not anything special, merely human rights.
“I get so frustrated because they try and make it out that the gay community is getting something that no one else has,” he said. “The straight community already has these privileges and they won’t allow the gay community to have what they should have as citizens.”
In West Virginia, the hate crime law does not consider sexual orientation a protected status.
In the state that Shepard was murdered, Wyoming, there is no form of a hate crime law.
More on the Matthew Shepard Foundation can be found at matthewshepard.org.