Nessel, civil rights unit to increase prosecution of hate crimes

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Dana Nessel

Michigan’s attorney general and Department of Civil Rights on Friday laid out plans to increase the documentation and prosecution of hate crimes and incidents while citing a reported uptick in extremist and hate groups in the state.

Michigan Department of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu announced the department is creating a process to document hate and bias incidents that don’t rise to the level of a crime or civil infraction.

Attorney General Dana Nessel previously announced plans for a hate crimes unit in her office. She reiterated the plans Friday after a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found active hate and extremist groups in Michigan had increased by more than 6 percent from 2017 to 2018.

The center’s report said Michigan has 31 hate and extremist organizations — an uptick from the 28 the group reported in 2017 — but some of the listed groups take issue with the classification.

“These groups range in the ideological extremes from anti-Muslim, to anti-LGBT to black nationalist and white nationalists,” Arbulu said in a statement. “Particularly of concern, over one half of the identified groups are located east of US-23 between Flint and Ann Arbor.”

Agustin V. Arbulu, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights

Church Militant/St. Michael’s Media in Ferndale is listed by the law center as an “anti-LGBT” hate group. The group's editor-in-chief, Christine Niles, rejected the label and said, to her knowledge, the group’s presence on the list is a first.

“We’re not entirely sure what that means,” Niles said, noting that the group and its work is faithful to the Catholic Church's teaching on marriage being between a man and a woman. “We have a right to believe that without being called a hate group.”

Church Militant's "virulently anti-gay" work "demonizes" gay people and qualified it as one of the 1,020 U.S. hate groups identified by the law center in its list published Wednesday, said Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which compiles the data behind the list. 

The state Department of Civil Rights reviews reports from both the SPLC and the Anti-Defamation League to get "a snapshot of what's taking place" in Michigan, Arbulu said. 

Nessel’s new unit will fight against hate crimes and review any groups identified in the SPLC list, her spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said. 

Rossman-McKinney also noted: “While the SPLC is a good place to start when investigating these issues, we will rely on our independent research and not just the SPLC designation."

The hate crime unit will include a minimum of one prosecuting attorney and one full-time investigator, Rossman-McKinney said. Prior to Nessel’s term, the Department of the Attorney General lacked any prosecutor or investigator who was assigned solely to hate crime issues.

A former Wayne County assistant prosecutor, Nessel also helped to found the Justice Project with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy to prosecute hate crimes.

"I have seen the appalling, often fatal results of hate when it is acted upon," Nessel said. 

Arbulu’s plans for a database would document hate and bias incidents that don’t rise to the level of a crime. The database would then be used to identify areas where awareness and education programs are most needed, he said.

Arbulu said he hopes to have the database operating within two or three months. He plans to work with other groups in Michigan, such as Equality Michigan and the ADL Michigan, to establish reporting standards and procedures. The department piloted such a plan for a few months after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016.

“The challenge is developing protocols that other groups can be bound by and we can be bound by so we can capture all that information into one database,” he said.

Arbulu said he hopes the database will allow the department to be proactive and address issues before they rise to the level of a crime.

Arbulu pointed to a recent incident in Lansing over President’s Day weekend, in which fliers saying “Keep America American” encouraged people to “report any and all illegal aliens.” The fliers included a phone number for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the website for Patriot Front, a group the SPLC has labeled a white nationalist group.  

In a statement, Arbulu said he was disappointed by the fliers, “but know this, we are watching and we won’t allow hate to divide us.”

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