Monday, November 2, 2009

BSO Hates Hate Crimes (therefore doesn't report them?)

Want to know how to commit a hate crime in Broward County and get away with it?
Easy. Just don't call it a hate crime when the cops come to arrest you.

Last week, I attempted to yank on Sheriff Lamberti's chain for getting together with the Dolphin Democrats in an effort to assure us all that he is dedicated to stopping hate crimes in Broward County. Over the weekend, Dani Moschella, the Sheriff's Public Relations Officer returned my calls made before the post.

According to Moschella, "Sheriff Lamberti is committed to stopping hate crimes [and so is] everyone else [at BSO]." She assured me that the Broward County Sheriff's Office is doing everything within their power to investigate, deter, and otherwise stop hate crimes and that Craig Cohen's murder did not (at the time of investigation) turn up the requisite evidence to report it as a hate crime.

"So, what evidence do they need?" I asked her.

The answer was complicated, as expected. Moschella struck me as a sincere person who was dedicated to her office. She told me that because of Lamberti's efforts, BSO is one of the few agencies in Florida that even has a Hate Crimes Task Force. She believes (perhaps rightly) that Broward County is way ahead of the curve when it comes to tackling hate crimes in Florida.

(UPDATES 09/04/09 - Commander Wierzbicki returned my calls today and offered new information - see below.)

Wierzbicki, a member of the Dolphin Democrats (a gay democratic organization), has made comments to local papers that seem to be directed at those who wish to see Craig Cohen's murder reported as a hate crime. Most recently, he told the Sun Sentinel that "You don't just throw hate crime charges on a wall and hope they stick. This attack just doesn't fit the criteria for those charges."

In an email to me, the public information office told me to expect a call back from Wierzbicki. At first I was personally offended that Weirzbicki has concluded that those of us who are brave enough to call a spade a spade are "throwing things at the wall and hoping they stick". This seemed rather accusatory and defensive, especially considering that it does not address the specifics of the case. (see updates below)

Wierzbicki has addressed specifics of the case before, at which point he disappointingly did not address what strikes us as the most obvious evidence (the easily concluded sexuality of the victims and the plans formulated by the perpetrators) to say that there was no evidence that a hate crime had occured. Wierzbicki even went so far as to imply that they would need the murderers themselves to spell it out for them before they could have enough evidence by his calculations. A local rabble-rouser named Scott Hall, who is often seen at gay events with large photographs of murdered gay people looming around him, pointed out the hypocrisy of Weirzbicki's deflection by saying that if the same thing had happened to an African American person, we'd be looking at a different outcome.

9/5/09 - Speaking to Wierzbicki, he says that he and his department believed it to be a hate crime at first as well, but the evidence wasn't there. This is probably where Wierzbicki is in the uncomfortable position of not being able to give his opinion on the matter because of his position. It would most likely be illegal for a commander or officer to give an opinion to media persons which conflicts with the evidence at hand.

According to BSO (via Moschella), while they express their commitment to stopping hate crimes, the hard evidence is what matters in classifying hate crimes as such. The philosophy behind gathering this evidence varies greatly from person to person at the Broward Sheriff's Office. According to some, they believe it necessary to think in terms of what a jury is likely to convict on (which obviously stems from rhetoric used by States Attorneys). According to others, hate crimes are reported if the evidence matches enough of the bullet points on some mythical 'evidence of a hate crime checklist'. If such a document exists, I have not seen it, despite all efforts to locate one.

According to state law (see pg 6), a hate crime is when the perpetrator intentionally selects the victim based on one or more of the following characteristics: race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, advanced age, or mental/physical disability. It's a vague definition at best and the operative word in the attack on Cohen is "intentionally".

In the case of Craig Cohen's murder, the kind of evidence that would be needed to classify it as a hate crime might be something like this:

Officer: Hey, was this by any chance a hate crime because Cohen was gay?
Assailant: Why yes, yes it was. I hate gays.
This is the ridiculous sort of scenario that I imagine when I look at these situations in the way they are being described to me by officials. It defies logic that the requisite evidence of a hate crime is, foremostly, even required for reporting one and secondly, reliant mostly upon the perpetrator of a hate crime to give themselves away.

Since the murderers (who had already spoken to their attorneys by the time the words "hate crime" were uttered by anyone) were wise enough to avoid saying anything in official records about Cohen (or their other victim, Villanova) being gay, the murder is said to be one of 'everyday garden variety'. (09-04-09 -According to Wierzbicki, he is not sure if the perpetrators spoke to their attorneys before they were questioned but it doesn't seem likely in light of the fact that they discussed their motivations with Sheriff's officers at all.)

Evidently, BSO is not required (or wasn't at the time of investigation) to gather evidence of a possible hate crime by interviewing other people who know the attackers (teachers, neighbors, parents, friends, or church fellows). The perpetrators of this crime also viciously attacked another gay man (near a gay bar in a gay neighborhood) the same night. The discovery that the attackers got together and smoked pot in their hometown of Deerfield Beach while discussing the idea of going to Fort Lauderdale's gay area to find a victim is apparently of no importance to anyone involved. 09-04-09 According to Wierzbicki, the Sheriff's Department circulated pictures of the attackers and originally investigated the attacks as hate crimes because of the circumstances. However, because the attackers only confessed that they were looking to "mess somebody up" for a good time, the requisite evidence was not there to charge them with a Hate Crime. It is believed (by Wierzbicki) that the attackers chose their victims only by the fact that they were walking alone. We are expected to believe that by some divine accident, the two lonesome walkers that the attackers chose out of hundreds of thousands in the state of Florida that night both happened to be gay and it was just a coincidence.

During the Matthew Shepard trial, Chastity Pasley and Kristen Price (the respective girlfriends of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the time of the event) testified that Henderson and McKinney both plotted beforehand to rob a gay man. That's what sealed the fates of those murderers even before any hate crime legislation had been enacted. Hate crimes legislation is intended to bring awareness to people and declare that the United States of America does not tolerate socially-targeted hateful acts. It proves the point that some crimes are perpetrated out of hatred for any given social class and that we, as a society of civilized people find these crimes to be particularly offensive.

Unfortunately, some people don't completely get it. They believe that the point of hate crimes legislation and reporting is to issue that "extra punishment" for the perpetrators. Obviously, prosecuting attorneys have come to see the classification as a tricky bonus round in the game we call justice. The Broward Sheriff's Office seems to ascribe to that latter definition.

According to Moschella, "there isn't really any point [from a legal standpoint] in charging them with a hate crime because it is what's referred to as an 'enhancement charge' and [the attackers] were already charged with murder."

I don't think Moschella is out on a limb on this one. I'm sure this belief is popular in Tallahassee as well. It would be quite convenient for Florida's Republican legislature and the taser-happy cops of North Florida to think of hate crimes reporting as something that's sort of pointless and excessive. I don't mean to imply that Moschella is defending hate crimes - I believe her when she says that BSO takes them seriously and is concerned. But at the same time, there is evidence that BSO still might need some improvement in this department when compared to their peers. In a report issued by the Florida Attorney General's office in 2008, only 4 hate crimes were officially reported by the Broward Sheriff's Office. However, 25 hate crimes were reported by city police within Broward County.

Let's throw that last little fact at the wall and see if it sticks.

Still unclear to me until further interviews, is whether or not reporting hate crimes is only done when hate crime charges are filed. More information to follow.

This post contains updated information since the post "Queer & Loathing in Fort Lauderdale" was published. Future updates on this subject will be posted here and this post is subject to periodic edits and changes as relevant information is discovered.


  1. Seems to me that you want to be talking to the State Attorney's office on this. They have the discretion to add the hate crime even if BSO doesn't.

    Also, there may be a problem with the way the statute is written (or practiced). It may be that if the hate charge is filed but doesn't stick, the underlying charge becomes more difficult to win. You might want to ask the SA if that is a consideration. They may feel it's better to get the sure murder charge than risk it trying to get the additional hate charge.

  2. To Anonymous - Yes, eventually I'm going to have to write another piece about the statute itself and the way these cases are prosecuted. You hit the nail on the head because 3 people have told me that that's exactly why they don't just go on ahead and tack on the hate crime charge. Because they could lose the whole case. I feel bad about the way I assumed originally that the Sheriff's office did not try to investigate it as a hate crime. I discovered by talking to Rick Wierzbicki that I was wrong about that. The hate crimes task force is still new and without the push of a lot of media attention, certain information might not come to light like it did with say, the Mathew Shepard case.


Florida Squeezed would love to hear your take on it...