Salt Lake County joins the push for stiffer Utah hate crimes law

Council unanimously approves resolution with an expanded list of religious groups targeted for crimes of bias.<br>

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Sim Gill, Salt Lake County district attorney, knows what it feels like to be targeted because of his ethnicity.

Add Salt Lake County to the list of local governments calling for a tougher hate crimes law in Utah.

The County Council on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution asking state lawmakers to stop talking or studying the need to change existing law — something they’ve been doing for at least a decade — and finally pass a bill.

The county joins six other government bodies that have passed similar resolutions in recent months, including Beaver County and the cities of Midvale, Moab, Salt Lake, South Salt Lake and West Jordan.

The resolution was sponsored jointly by councilmen Arlyn Bradshaw, a Democrat who is openly gay, and Republican Michael Jensen.

What passed however was a second proposal from Republican Richard Snelgrove that married Bradshaw’s specific call for legislative action with an expanded and detailed list of religious groups commonly targeted in bias crimes, including Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others.

“I’d like to see less hate in our community, less racism, less homophobia, less Islamophobia, less Mormonphobia, less anti-Semitism,” Snelgrove said, noting that he sees the seeds of hate being sewn on the comment boards of most media outlets in Utah. “It’s unfortunate.”

Hate crimes are considered particularly egregious because beyond their specific victim, the acts send a broader message to the community to which the victim belongs.

Utah passed its first hate crimes bill about 20 years ago and there are currently three existing statutes.

None make it a crime to target a victim based on their real or perceived membership in any historically recognized vulnerable group including age, ancestry, disability gender or gender identity, race, religion or sexual orientation.

For years, state lawmakers have balked at changing existing law, primarily because of concerns that doing so would create special or additional rights and protections for the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, is expected to reprise his unsuccessful 2017 attempt to pass a so-called “victim selection” bill when the Legislature convenes in two weeks.

The bill would allow judges to raise the floor on the statutory penalties ascribed to a charged crime if a defendant is convicted of a bias-motivated crime, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill told the Council on Tuesday.

Nationally, the FBI has said hate crimes have risen 40 percent since 2015. Utah data shows some 566 hate crimes have been reported to the Department of Public Safety since 2007, Gill said. The fewest number — 40 — were reported in 2008, and the highest — 102 — in 2012.

In 2016, the number was 66, with the majority of crimes targeting victims for their religion or race. On a more “granular level,” Gill said 26 hate crimes were reported in Salt Lake County in 2016; 21 associated with race and ethnicity, three with religion and one each for sexual orientation and disability.

Gill also shared his own experience of being targeted with slurs in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by some people in a truck who yelled at him as he walked near Salt Lake City Hall.

“They yelled at me ‘sand n----- go home or we’ll [expletive] kill you,’” Gill said. “I remember thinking about the community I belong to, other Indians that would be targeted because of what was going on.”

No citizen of the United States, or resident of Utah or Salt Lake County should have to suffer that kind of deliberately incited fear, he said, which is why prosecutors and police have for years asked lawmakers for a tougher law.

“Our common sense, our decency and our sense of fairness demand that when our citizens are in need of this kind of sanctuary, that as public elected individuals, we have a responsibility to listen to that,” he said. “All we’re asking our Legislature to do is to listen to that cry and say that there is a remedy.”