New York Police Department officials have declined so far to charge the man accused of shooting an imam and his assistant in Queens on Saturday with a hate crime, noting they need more information about what motivated the attack.
"We're still drilling down on (the motive)," said NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce at a Monday press conference, according to The New York Times. "It's certainly on the table that it's a hate crime."
The FBI describes a hate crime as "a traditional offense like murder, arson or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a 'criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity."
In 2014, religious bias motivated 18.6 percent of hate crimes, the FBI reported last year. Race accounted for 47 percent of hate crimes.
A hate crime charge generally stiffens the punishment a criminal would receive for a regular murder or assault charge, as the International Business Times reported last year.
"Hate crime laws send a message to potential victims everywhere that we have not forgotten about them, that we will no longer tolerate intolerance," noted Jack Levin, co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University, in the article.
Some members of the Muslim community are upset that the NYPD is hesitating to use the label for Saturday's shooting.
"This was absolutely a hate crime," said Bazlur Rahman, who belonged to the imam's mosque, to The New York Times. "This is a busy intersection filled with people, and the two people killed were the ones in Muslim clothing. How is that anything other than targeting?"
The NYPD and other New York officials have said the shooter's motives remain unclear, while also noting investigators are working with the Hate Crime Task Force.
"While we do not yet know the motivation for the murders of Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin, we know that our Muslim communities are in the perpetual crosshairs of bigotry," said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in a statement, according to Reuters.
Akonjee, 55, led the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque in Queens, serving a community predominately composed of Bangladeshi immigrants. He and his assistant were wearing traditional religious garb when they were shot from behind.
Muslims and others joined members of Akonjee's mosque in mourning the deaths. Many are angered by the NYPD's refusal to use the "hate crime" label, as Khalid Latif, a Muslim chaplain for New York University and the NYPD, wrote for CNN.
"Many readily believe that these two men were targeted because of their faith and that this was a hate crime. Are we wrong? Possibly. But in the current political climate, why would we not feel targeted?" Latif noted.
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