Utah bill would require police officer training for responding to hate crimes

Last year, racial slurs graffitied on a Filipino food truck in Layton shocked the community, but one lawmaker says that's the tip of the iceberg in Utah.

Between 2020 and 2021, the state saw a surge in crimes against those of Asian and Pacific Islander descent — a 339% increase, said Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray.

"We had more than 800 crimes recorded against people of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage" last year, she said during the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee meeting on Tuesday.

"None of those crimes rose to the level of a hate crime," Kwan said, explaining that they might have been targeted but "inconsistent reporting" meant they weren't identified as hate crimes.

Kwan's bill, HB296, would require a portion of a police officer's annual training to include certain subjects involving victim targeting. They would be trained to identify, respond to and report criminal offenses "motivated by certain personal attributes or a violation of federal criminal law concerning hate crimes," according to the bill.

Nationally, the pandemic prompted the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act meant to help collect information about hate crimes. Kwan said HB296 would make Utah consistent with those national efforts.

Scott Stephenson, director of Peace Officer Standards and Training in the state, thanked Kwan for "just making the inquiry" into whether the training equips officers to respond to hate crimes. He said he researched the curriculum "and found it was significantly lacking in this area."

As a result, he said the program will add those as objectives to the curriculum.

"I think this is very beneficial and I'm glad it'll be in code, hopefully, because that'll make sure it stays in our curriculum," Stephenson said.

Kwan emphasized the increase in hate crimes against those of Asian descent increased due to the pandemic.

The state and country saw anti-Asian violence related to "misconceptions and stereotypes about where the virus came from. And so this attempts to address that nationally, and in Utah, what this does is it offers that information for our police officers," Kwan added.

Nate Mutter, assistant chief investigator at the Utah Attorney General's Office and chairman of the Law Enforcement Legislative Committee, thanked Kwan for working with stakeholders on the bill.

He said the standard training curriculum "is the place to have it, when we're teaching our officers about things like theft and vandalism and assault, and those types of crimes, it's good to teach them to look a little deeper."

A vandalism case might be more than a standard vandalism case, he said, "and we need to ask them more questions, dig a bit deeper, and to see if these crimes are targeted because of race, gender, religion."

Other lawmakers praised the bill as a way to help the state gather more information into hate crimes.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said she believes statistics don't reflect what is really happening in communities "because this is underreported."

Often, victims don't report crimes as hate crimes because there is a disconnection going on with communities and the police "which we need to figure out how to continue to bridge that."

"We can't keep waiting" to gather the data, said committee Chairman Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden.

The bill received a unanimous recommendation from the committee, meaning it will move forward to a vote in the full House.

In 2019, Utah passed a law enhancing the penalty for hate crimes. The bill outlined protected categories of people that include race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, political expression and gender identity.