Eastern Iowa officials are encouraging people to report any hate-related incidents. In the past few months Iowa City has seen white power fliers handed out in a neighborhood and anti-Semitic graffiti on the University of Iowa campus. Now local law enforcement and community leaders are asking for residents' help to identify and prevent potential hate crimes.
Dozens of students and residents filled an Iowa City conference room this week to hear more about what they can do to address hate-motivated incidents. A panel of local and federal officials were on hand to answer questions and explain their approaches.
County Attorney Janet Lyness started with the basics, outlining what a hate crime is under Iowa state law.
"It's somebody who commits a public offense, certain public offense. And that they did it and they committed it against a person or the person's property because of the person's race, age, color, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, age or disability. Or because that person associates with someone in one of these, what we call, protected classes," Lyness said.
She explained only four offenses can qualify as hate crimes in Iowa: assault or threatened assault, arson, criminal mischief or trespass.
Iowa City Police Chief Jody Matherly said it can be difficult to determine if an incident is motivated by hate. He said interviewing potential witnesses and gathering any evidence is vital to build a case. He and other local law enforcement are encouraging residents to report any incidents as soon as they happen.
“We want to deal with that, whether it’s a hate crime or just a regular crime, or if it’s not even a crime but it’s drawn our attention to it. We want to make this a safe community and people are entitled to live free of fear,” Matherly said.
Because of free speech protections, not every hate-related incident qualifies as a hate crime. But even if an action turns out to not be criminal, Matherly says that information can help with future prosecutions.
“Sometimes what may seem like nothing or technically wasn’t illegal is that little thread we needed to later on solve something bigger. It’s so important,” Matherly said.
Matherly says his department is not seeing a statistically significant increase in hate crimes so far this year, but he hopes to lay the groundwork to address and prevent future incidents. Dedric Doolin with the NAACP says a lot of that work depends on friends and neighbors having difficult conversations.
"If there's somebody who's mistreating people, when you stay silent, you only help the problem to continue. We've got to break that code of silence," Doolin said.
University of Iowa Police Chief Scott Beckner and Kevin Sanders of the NAACP also participated in the panel, along with FBI Special Agent Thomas Reinwart, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa Peter Deegan and lawyer Richard Westphal, representing the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Iowa.