Director: Hate database focused on incidents, not individuals

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Agustin Arbulu

Lansing — The Michigan Department of Civil Rights is developing a system to log “hate-bias incidents" but not track groups or individuals, Director Agustin Arbulu told lawmakers Tuesday.

Michigan’s Republican-led Senate Oversight Committee grilled Arbulu over plans to create a government database to record a perceived rise in hate and bias incidents that don’t rise to the level of a crime.

A conservative law center in February sued Arbulu and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, alleging they could unjustly target the group for its political stances as they ramp up separate efforts to prosecute hate crimes and document non-criminal incidents.

But Arbulu told lawmakers the department envisions its database as a way to track incidents so it can identify trends and respond to communities that feel “threatened or victimized” with additional outreach or support.

“Incidents that have taken place in other parts of this country during the past 12-plus months have given the department concern for how we can act proactively to work with communities in Michigan before a tragedy befalls a community,” he said.

The department experimented with a hate and bias incident database between November 2016 and February 2017, Arbulu said. It documented more than 60 incidents during that span, with more than half of them occurring in school-related settings.

The temporary database described the alleged bias incidents but did not include the names of any instigators, according to a copy obtained by The Detroit News through a Freedom of Information Act.

Many of the incidents were first reported in the news media, some related to Republican President Donald Trump, including “Build the Wall” chants at Royal Oak Middle School and an anti-Trump rally in Grand Rapids.

Arbulu said officials are cognizant of free speech concerns as they work to develop new database procedures.

The hate incident monitoring is designed to compliment state education and community outreach efforts and is not related to any official investigations, said Daniel Levy, an attorney for the Civil Rights Department.

“It’s not about specific cases; it’s about preventing” additional hate or bias incidents in the future, Levy told lawmakers. “We would not consider those to be complaints, which is why we don’t track who committed them.”

Sen. Ed McBroom, a Vulcan Republican who chairs the Senate Oversight Committee, said he was “relieved” to hear the department is not tracking individuals or groups who could be “on a list incorrectly” and face related repercussions if the database were made public.

“I’ve always had a lot of heartburn over lists of people, whether it is the no-fly list or other lists of people who haven’t committed a crime,” McBroom said.

But keeping a list of incidents “to make sure that the department is ready and available to support communities in times of need is a good thing and good work for the department to be doing,” he said.

Nessel also attempted to assuage GOP fears when she testified before the oversight panel last month, telling lawmakers that the new unit she created to prosecute hate crimes will not police “thoughts or words.”

Instead, specialized prosecutors will focus on 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. 

Nessel and Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani, who is leading the new hate crimes unit, told lawmakers their office is not developing or using any database of alleged hate incidents or extreme speech.

A 2020 budget approved last week by the GOP-led Senate proposes a 10 percent cut in administrative funding for Nessel’s office and a 10 percent cut in operational spending for Arbulu’s department.

Staff Reporter Beth LeBlanc contributed