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Wayne County may have national model for prosecuting crimes against LGBTQ community

Sep 20, 2017

The Fair Michigan Justice Project (FMJP), a collaboration between the LGBTQ advocacy group Fair Michigan and the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, began a little over a year ago, in July 2016.

It marks an important new approach to pursuing hate crimes committed against people who are LGBTQ. And it's especially noteworthy today, as this week the Michigan Civil Rights Commission declined a request to add protections for LGBTQ people to the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, a law designed to prohibit discrimination in our state.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, Fair Michigan Justice Project president Dana Nessel, and special prosecutor Jaimie Powell-Horowitz, spoke with Stateside last June to explain what exactly the Fair Michigan Justice Project is and what it's accomplished in the past year.

For Nessel, the project started because there was a real need for reform.

"What I had seen unfortunately over the course of many years, was what seemed to be a large number of hate crimes that were being committed against the LGBTQ community and personally I was getting a lot of complaints from people who were saying that they didn't feel like they were adequately protected by the criminal justice system," Nessel said. "That they were very afraid to report these crimes and they felt that the crimes ... were not being properly investigated when they did report them. They were not being solved. They were not being prosecuted."

That's how Worthy noticed this was an issue in Wayne County. She was aware of the crimes, but wasn't seeing the warrants on her desk.

The first case the task force prosecuted involved a victim who wouldn't have even reported the crime without the Fair Michigan Justice Project.

A man posted a video of himself on social media assaulting an LGBTQ man with a weapon. According to Powell-Horowitz, this victim didn't tell anyone about the crime and likely would never have reported it, but a member of the Detroit Police Department caught wind of the video and passed it along to the FMJP. Using compassion and providing the victim with a safe space, the FMJP was able to prosecute the crime. The criminal is now serving time in prison. 

"The fact that people feel free to put online, to say, to brag about their abuse of other people, and we're seeing it all over, but especially in the last, I'd say, in the last couple of years especially, people seem to be emboldened to attack members of [the LGBTQ] community and to me it's outrageous, and it's intolerable," Worthy said. "And we won't have it."

Worthy said she believes the partnership is the first of its kind in the country. 

One of the biggest tools in the FMJP toolbox is the way they make sure officers and investigators show respect to their victims. This includes using preferred pronouns.  

"Giving people the proper language to use is very important," Powell-Horowitz said. "You can't fight crime, you can't be good at your job if you are not respectful to your victims. We always tell the police officers that we talk to in training and the prosecutors, we understand that people have differences of opinion, however you always have to be professional and respectful and it helps you to solve crime. It helps you to close cases. It helps you to get justice for these individuals."

In Nessel's experience, there are not enough protections for the LGBTQ community in Michigan.  

"All of the LGBTQ community faces obstacles," Nessel said. "I think that the trans[gender] community really has it the worst. [It's] something that I had suspected, but then my fears were confirmed through our work in this project is that a lot of people who are victimized who are trans are victimized specifically because they are left in a place where they are much more vulnerable than the rest of the population."

Nessel said there are no protections for sexual orientation or gender identity in the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act or even in Michigan's Ethnic Intimidation Act. It can be difficult for trans people to get jobs and safe housing, so often they end up on the street where they are much more vulnerable.

  "You cannot fail to see the connection between the lack of protection in our state laws and the crimes that are being committed against the [LGBTQ] community," Nessel said. "A lot of these trans folks [in other major cities] are able to get employment because they can't be discriminated against and unfortunately that's not the case here in the state of Michigan."

The FMJP has only been around for a little over a year, but Worthy believes it's established a strong strategy in Wayne County, one that could be replicated around the country.
 
"I want to grow up in a world where this isn't even an issue," Worthy said. "That every person that does law enforcement, every prosecutor that does these cases, the advocates have less to do ... I'm not going to grow up in that kind of world but I want my children to grow up in that kind of world. And this is a start." 

Listen to the full interview above.

Michigan Radio originally aired this story on July 6, 2017.

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