Feds step up enforcement of hate crimes in Central, Eastern Kentucky

bestep@herald-leader.comFebruary 24, 2012 

To those who might consider attacking people because of their race or sexual orientation, U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey has a message: Don't.

"They need to understand that they're playing with fire, that it won't be tolerated," Kerry said in an interview Friday.

Harvey said he has made enforcement of federal civil-rights laws — including the law regarding hate crimes — a priority since he took office in May 2010 as the top federal prosecutor for Central and Eastern Kentucky.

He designated a unit within the office to focus on civil-rights enforcement, and on Thursday the office hosted a training session for state and local police and prosecutors.

About 100 people attended the training.

It was the first such session during Harvey's time as U.S. attorney, said Kyle Edelen, spokesman for the office.

One focus was changes in federal hate-crimes law.

In 2009, Congress broadened the law to add crimes motivated by a victim's sexual orientation, disability and gender to the list of hate crimes, according to Harvey's office.

Harvey said he could not discuss pending cases, but confirmed the changes "have generated some activity on our part."

Harvey said he wants to educate the public about civil-rights laws, and to deter people from committing hate crimes.

The federal hate-crime law also covers violent acts motivated by the victim's race, color, religion and national origin.

Harvey pointed out that while an assault might be considered a misdemeanor under state law, punishable by no more than a year in prison, the attack could be charged as a felony hate crime under federal law if it was motivated by the victim's race, sexual orientation or other factors covered by the law.

That could bring a sentence of up to 10 years, or life if the crime included aggravating factors such as kidnapping or sexual abuse.

Harvey said he wants police to be aware of the hate-crimes law and the changes so that they will be more likely to spot whether a crime was motivated by bias.

Kentucky State Police statistics show there were 69 hate crimes reported in Kentucky in 2010, according to Harvey's office.

Harvey said it's likely many hate crimes go unreported.

The U.S. Attorney's Office that covers Western Kentucky hosted a training session last year for state and local police that focused on hate crimes and human trafficking, according to Stephanie Collins, spokeswoman for the office.

Jordan Palmer, president of the Kentucky Equality Federation, which advocates for gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex people, applauded Harvey's focus on civil-rights enforcement.

"He's shown enormous sensitivity, enormous outreach," Palmer said.

The federation asked federal authorities to investigate alleged assaults on a gay man and a lesbian woman in Harlan County last year.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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