Hate Incidents vs. Hate Crimes – What’s the Difference?

Oct 12, 2023

Hate Incidents vs. Hate Crimes
What’s the Difference?

by Matthew Burlingame

Printed 10-12-23

This month, we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student at the University of Wyoming, who was beaten, tortured, and left to die while tied to a fence near the city of Laramie. It was this brutal murder that brought much-needed attention to hate crime legislation across the country.

But there is still widespread confusion regarding the differences between a “hate crime” and a “hate incident,” both of which disproportionately affect the LGBTQ and other marginalized communities.

While both terms share a common thread of prejudice and bias, they differ significantly in terms of their legal implications and the personal impact they carry.

A hate incident, in many ways, echoes the indignities and microaggressions that LGBTQ individuals often face. It encompasses any act or behavior that is perceived as motivated by a bias based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or other protected characteristics.

The most common is, of course, verbal abuse and offensive language. There are few in our community who haven’t experienced some variation of verbal vitriol yelled from a passing truck or spoken in anger in public spaces, online, or even within the supposed safety of our own homes.

The vandalism of public or private property with hate symbols, offensive imagery, or discriminatory messages is an all-too-familiar occurrence. Our local queer library, community center, and other venues have all, at one time or another, had to wash away painted graffiti created to sow the seeds of intolerance.

In the digital age, hate incidents no longer know physical boundaries. Online harassment, including cyberbullying and hate speech on social media, are the most common examples of attacks LGBTQ individuals face far too frequently.

These non-violent expressions of hatred, including anti-gay and anti-trans rallies and demonstrations, may not necessarily involve criminal activity or physical violence that leads to criminal charges, but they nonetheless can inflict substantial psychological and emotional harm.

Hate crimes, however, pose a real and discernible threat, such as physical violence, property damage, or other tangible acts of aggression that are motivated by bias or prejudice based on their victim’s identity.

Hate crimes come with specific legal ramifications and are subject to enhanced penalties under the law. In California, the Attorney General’s office has developed a Hate Crime Rapid Response Protocol, which acts as a supplemental resource to local, state, and federal enforcement agencies. This ensures local agencies have the full resources of the Department of Justice at their disposal.

The reporting and prosecution of hate crimes are pivotal not only for the individuals they were perpetrated on but also for the communities who find themselves vulnerable to these types of attacks. It conveys a powerful message that society will not tolerate acts of violence or discrimination based on prejudice. By holding hate crime perpetrators accountable for their actions, it helps society work toward eliminating deeply ingrained prejudices that persist in our society.

Hate incidents and hate crimes are both critical issues that demand our attention. Recognizing these distinctions is essential as we strive to create a more inclusive and accepting society for LGBTQ and other marginalized communities.

To report a non-emergency hate crime, call the Sacramento Police Department at 916-808-5471, or the Sacramento Sheriff at 916-874-5115. For hate crime information and resources, log on to: sacda.org/in-the-courtroom/criminal-prosecutions/hate-crimes-unit. You can also check CAvsHate.org for resources and the report hate crimes.

This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.