Hate crimes in Utah have increased, according to new figures released by the FBI.
The agency's annual Hate Crimes Statistics report released Monday shows Utah had 55 hate crimes involving race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity and disability in 2007. Only 35 such crimes were reported to the FBI in 2006.
Overall, hate crimes decreased slightly across the nation. Of the 7,621 single-bias incidents in 2007, more than half were racially motivated. But the report found anti-gay crimes surged, accounting for nearly 17 percent of the reported hate crimes nationwide.
The FBI does not compare year to year because the number of agencies that report the crimes varies. For 2006, 21 Utah law enforcement agencies submitted data, while 28 participated in 2007.
"All these agencies are voluntarily reporting crimes," said Juan Becerra, an FBI special agent in the Salt Lake City field office. "The definition of a hate crime to one agency may vary from one agency to another."
In 2007, nine crimes in Utah were reported to have been motivated by an anti-gay bias. Bountiful police reported two, but authorities there could not cite specific examples. Centerville police reported three crimes in 2007 believed to be motivated by a religious bias.
The FBI said it has not seen an increase in hate crimes being referred to the agency for investigation. Federal prosecutors have tried to communicate with law enforcement agencies about federal civil rights laws, which are often tougher than state hate crimes statutes.
"There is good communication. It could always be better," said Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney for Utah. "We do try to do regular training to remind officers of the federal laws that are available in this area."
The U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah has successfully prosecuted a series of racially motivated hate crimes in Salt Lake City.
After years of proponents struggling to get a hate crimes law passed, the Utah Legislature passed a bill that critics say is still weak. Prosecutors say they will use Utah's hate crimes statute, if applicable. Earlier this month, the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office charged a Magna man with beating another man because he is gay. However, prosecutors did not pursue a hate crime enhancement in that case. Instead, they pursued a gang enhancement for first-degree felony aggravated assault charges.
"The reason it wasn't used in this case is (the hate crimes statute) only applies to misdemeanor level crime," said district attorney's spokeswoman Alicia Cook. "In this case, where there's the possibility of pursuing a first-degree felony ... "
Valerie Larabee, the director of the Utah Pride Center, believes hate crimes are underreported. She said law enforcement has done a good job of educating itself about hate crimes, but said her community needs to do more to educate itself. She often fields phone calls from people who claim to be victims of a hate crime, but will not report it to police.
"They're probably not out to friends, family and workplaces," Larabee said. "And if they get highlighted by law enforcement, you can pretty much guarantee you're going to get outed."
The FBI in Salt Lake City currently has a number of hate crimes investigations under way, Becerra said.
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