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Hate crime initiatives launched in US after back-to-back racist shootings

The policies aim to improve reporting mechanisms and promote community education about hate crimes.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Less than a week after mass shootings targeting the Black and Taiwanese communities, the Justice Department unveiled a plan Friday to combat hate crimes.

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced new guidelines for law enforcement officials and local leaders in conjunction with a slew of state grants focused on hate crime prevention programs and data gathering.

The department will dole out $10 million grants that will fund the creation of reporting hotlines and aid law enforcement in sending data on hate crimes to the federal government. Half of that money will also support community-based programs to prevent and address hate crimes.

Full-time language access coordinator Ana Paula Noguez Mercado will also join the Justice Department to improve language interpretation and hate-crime reporting among non-English speaking communities.

When he first came into office last year, Garland launched a review to develop new policies on hate crimes. On Friday, he acknowledged the weight of addressing that mission while the country remains reeling from the murder of 10 shoppers in a mass shooting carried out Saturday afternoon by a white supremacist in Buffalo, New York.

"Last weekend's attack was a painful reminder of the singular impact that hate crimes have not only on individuals, but on entire communities," Garland said. "They bring immediate devastation. They inflict lasting fear."

Authorities are now studying an online diary that the 18-year-old shooter Payton Gendron kept for months ahead of the attack. They say he targeted the supermarket 200 miles away from his hometown because of its location in a predominantly Black neighborhood.

With the Justice Department and FBI are investigating the shooting as a hate crime, President Joe Biden called the attack "straightforward terrorism." The shooting in Buffalo is the deadliest of the year, but bloodshed across the United States has been constant in the days. Not even 24 hours after the Buffalo shooting, there was a fatal shooting at a Taiwanese church in Laguna Woods, California, that police say was also racially motivated.

Garland had planned the policy announcement ahead of the Buffalo attack to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act and the Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act, legislation Congress passed in 2021 to fund anti-hate crime work.

"We now gather in the wake of a horrific and painful reminder of the urgency and importance of this task," Garland told reporters Friday.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle rallied behind the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act last year in the wake of a shooting in Atlanta where eight people, six of whom were Asian American women, were killed by a gunman targeting massage parlors that had predominantly Asian employees. The legislation aimed to combat anti-Asian discrimination and violence, which spiked during the pandemic.

The Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act was named after two people killed in racially motivated hate crimes. Khalid Jabara, an immigrant from Lebanon and practicing Muslim, was killed in Oklahoma by his neighbor in 2016. A year later, Heather Heyer was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of people protesting a rally for extreme right wingers in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Authorities counted 8,305 hate crimes in 2020, the highest number on record in almost two decades. But activists and community leaders say the number of crimes motivated by a prejudice based on race, gender, sexuality or religion is likely even higher than the FBI's count.

The federal database relies on local law enforcement agencies reporting hate crimes in their jurisdictions, a factor that can lead to undercounting if officials aren't trained on what constitutes a hate crime or if community members do not feel comfortable notifying the police of an incident.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said the department's existing and new efforts focused on hate crimes are about both prevention and boosting reporting mechanisms.

"We also know it is not enough to wait until a hate crime occurs, we have to address hate well before it escalates into violence," Gupta said.

In his speech, Garland harkened back to the creation of the Department of Justice during the reconstruction era as the government grappled with post-Civil War litigation and the enforcement of the 14th and 15th amendments.

"This department was founded in 1870 in the aftermath of the Civil War, with the first fundamental purpose to fight the white supremacist attacks on Black civil rights after the Civil War. One hundred and fifty two years later, the task to combat hate-fueled violence remains central to the department's mission," Garland said. "We do this because it is our legal obligation, and we do this because it is our moral obligation."

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