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Lansing — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel vowed Tuesday that her new hate crimes unit will not function as thought police, calmly batting back criticism and concerns raised by Republican legislators.

The first-term Democrat testified before the Senate Oversight Committee, where she used her opening statement to dispel what she called “misconceptions” about the unit she officially launched last month. 

“We are not policing thoughts or words,” Nessel told lawmakers. “While some people in this state may choose to exercise their right to free speech by thinking hateful thoughts, saying hateful words or associating with hate-filled people, as attorney general it is my job to protect that right, not to prosecute it, even if I vehemently disagree with those thoughts, words or associations."

Instead, the unit will serve as a specialized group of prosecutors who will handle alleged hate crimes that are already illegal under state law, she said, pointing to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics showing hate crimes reported by Michigan agencies rose nearly 30 percent in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. 

The Ann Arbor-based American Freedom Law Center recently sued Nessel and Michigan Department of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu, arguing the state is unjustly targeting the group for its conservative political views.

Nessel and Arbulu in February highlighted hate group statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which considers the American Freedom Law Center “anti-Muslim.”

Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, called the Southern Poverty Law Center a “tainted” organization with liberal bias. He asked Nessel whether her office is “colluding or cooperating” with the center to track and monitor Michigan groups.

“I at no point indicated that we would be working together with the Southern Poverty Law Center,” Nessel assured him. “That’s not something I have ever said, and it’s not something we plan to do.”

Nessel and Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani, who is leading the new hate crimes unit, also made clear the office is not developing or using a database of alleged hate incidents or extreme speech.

In a February press release that included separate comment from Nessel, Arbulu announced the Michigan Department of Civil Rights was creating a database to document incidents that don’t rise to the level of a crime. It would be used to identify areas where awareness and education programs are most needed, he explained.

State Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, told Nessel the idea of a hate incident database “made me extremely uncomfortable.”

But Doddamani said the Attorney General’s Office is not involved in the database project and does not think it would be valuable to consult as part of her work.

The civil rights department “gets involved in community response when there are incidents of hate, which is a much different thing than what this unit is doing,” she said. “What this unit seeks to do is prosecute a hate crime that has already occurred.”

Michigan’s ethnic intimidation law of 1988 makes it a two-year felony to intimidate or harass people because of their race, color, religion, gender or national origin through physical contact, property damage or threats.

Prosecutors often use the statute to seek longer sentences for individuals who also committed other lower-level crimes, Nessel said, telling lawmakers that keeping hate crime offenders under court supervision for a longer period can help prevent more serious violations.

“What we call it in the business is basically murder prevention,” said Nessel, a former assistant prosecutor in Wayne County.

Before running for office, Nessel helped fund the Fair Michigan Justice Project in collaboration with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office to prosecute hate crimes against gay and transgender residents.

The group initially worked on a series of homicides of transgender women of color that had gone unsolved, bringing in their own investigator, prosecutor and victim advocate to a community with an “inherent distrust” of law enforcement, Nessel said.

“When we had people coming in and working with that community and letting that community know, ‘We’re here to protect you, we’re not here to prosecute you,’ they started working with us and cooperating. We were able to solve a number of those cases quickly.”

Nessel said she is funding the new hate crimes unit in-house after eliminating 11 other jobs she “deemed to be politically oriented” under Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette, mostly constituent outreach jobs.

“I had a hard time identifying exactly what the nature of their work was,” she said of the former Schuette staffers. “We used that money to hire seasoned prosecutors and investigators and to work on some of these other issues as well.”

Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, said Schuette’s constituent outreach specialist in the Upper Peninsula “was always busy and worked very hard.” McBroom thought so highly of Judi Schwalbach, he hired her on his own staff in the state Senate.

McBroom said he is not personally convinced that the state’s hate crime law and Nessel’s new unit will deter future crimes. He also questioned whether the recent spike in reported hate crimes was simply a result of more robust reporting, not an actual increase in the actions.

But the hearing was “potentially helpful” for Republican lawmakers who might push funding cuts for the attorney general’s office because of concerns with the hate crimes unit, McBroom said.

“It was good to hear that they’re not intending to keep a database or a list at the state level,” he said after the hearing. “I mean I’m somebody who’s very nervous about lists kept with people who have not been convicted of a crime.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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