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Hate crimes in NWI down from 2016, but still higher than in four years past

A garbage shed spray-painted by vandals with a Nazi flag and iron crosses stands July 30 on the grounds of the Congregation Shaarey Tefilla synagogue in Carmel, Indiana, outside Indianapolis. Indiana currently does not have a bias-crime statute, though Gov. Eric Holcomb has said he is committed to seeing the state adopt one next year.

The number of hate crimes reported to the FBI by Northwest Indiana police agencies decreased to four in 2017 from five in 2016, but remained slightly higher than levels seen in the four years before 2016.

In some cases, racial and other biases were noted, but the motivation for the crimes appeared to also include other factors, police said.

Local police agencies reported few of the cases to the FBI, which can work with the U.S. attorney's office to secure charges under federal hate crimes laws.

Munster police referred one case involving a bomb threat at a Jewish organization in 2016 to the FBI, but no suspects have been identified, and the case now is considered open but inactive.

A call to a Jewish organization from an unknown number in February 2016 threatened death and indicated a bomb was in the building, Munster police Lt. Ed Strbjak said. The building was evacuated and searched, but nothing was found.

Local police arrested people on battery charges in several of the reported hate crimes cases. However, in a few cases, a racial slur was used, but it was unclear if a chargeable offense such as battery or intimidation was committed.

Indiana currently does not have a bias-crime statute, though Gov. Eric Holcomb has said he is committed to seeing the state adopt one next year.

State Sen. Mike Bohacek, R-Michiana Shores, is working with the chairman of the Senate Public Policy Committee, state Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, to prepare a bias crime proposal for consideration by the 2019 General Assembly.

Because Indiana does not have a so-called hate crimes law, some agencies said it was difficult to look up which cases had been reported as hate crimes. That's because they are classified another way, such as battery or intimidation, and flagged by records clerks for reporting to the FBI, Hammond police Lt. Steven Kellogg said.

Leaders at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the state's top business organization, have said that if the Hoosier State wants to attract top talent to its companies, it needs to immediately adopt a "meaningful" bias crime law, as Indiana is one of only five states that do not have such a law. The other states with no such law are Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and Wyoming.

"Indiana is a welcoming place, and we need to enact every policy possible to convey that message to those outside our state," said Kevin Brinegar, chamber president.

Nationally, the number of hate crime cases reported to the FBI increased about 17 percent in 2017 compared with the previous year, according to the bureau's annual Hate Crime Statistics report. Law enforcement reported 7,175 hate crimes in 2017, up from 6,121 in 2016.

Local cases detailed

Police in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties reported a total of four hate crime cases in 2017, five in 2016, two in 2015, none in 2014, one in 2013, one in 2012 and six in 2011.

In 2017, Hammond reported three hate crime cases and Michigan City reported one that year, FBI statistics show. Bias toward race was a factor in two of Hammond's cases and Michigan City's case, while bias toward sexual orientation was a factor in one Hammond case.

In Hammond's two race-based cases, a white female called a black female the N-word and put a white cross in the black female's yard, and a white man yelled racial slurs at a black teenager and fired several shots into the air, Kellogg said.

The man who fired the shots was arrested. A report was taken in the case involving the cross, but it was unclear if charges were filed. Further details about the size of the cross were not available.

In 2016, LaPorte police reported two cases, Munster reported one, Westville reported one and the Porter County Sheriff's Department reported one, for a total of five hate crime cases, records show. Munster's case involved bias toward religion, while Westville's case involved bias toward sexual orientation. The three remaining cases involved bias toward race.

LaPorte police said the N-word was used in their two cases in 2016, which both involved juveniles.

In one case, the juveniles had ongoing issues and a racial slur was used during a fight. Police arrested the juvenile who started the fight, Capt. Bill Degnegaard said.

In the second case, two families were involved in an ongoing feud and racial slurs were used. Charges were declined because of lack of evidence and changing of stories, he said.

Porter County sheriff's police secured battery charges against Jerome Uskert, a white then-66-year-old Center Township man, after he struck a black 17-year-old boy in the side of the head with a closed fist and pushed the boy to the ground, department spokeswoman Sgt. Jamie Erow said.

"It was determined Uskert felt the boy was a 'nuisance' and continued to reference the fact he was African-American," Erow said.

Uskert was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor battery.

In 2015, Hammond reported two cases, both involving race. In 2014, no bias crimes were reported in Northwest Indiana. In 2013, Indiana State Police reported one case in Lake County where bias toward race was a factor. Hammond reported one case in 2012 where bias toward disability was a factor. 

The FBI was not notified of any of the Hammond cases between 2015 and 2017, Kellogg said. 

"Hammond police take every crime, regardless of the motivation, very seriously and investigate every crime they are able to prosecute," he said. 

When there is a possibility that a serious crime might be motivated by hate, Hammond police would ask the FBI to take a look, he said.

Erow, of the Porter County Sheriff's Department, said hate crimes are never tolerated and investigated like any other crimes against individuals, including child molestation and other sex offenses.

Law may be passed in January session

State Sens. Bohacek and Alting have pre-filed Senate Bill 12, explicitly permitting judges to consider a biased motivation for a crime as an aggravating factor when deciding whether a convicted felon should serve more than the advisory prison term.

Under the plan, the potential sentence enhancement would apply to crimes perpetrated against an individual or group based on their actual or perceived race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, national origin, ancestry or sexual orientation.

Bohacek's proposal also goes beyond the usual federally protected classes to permit judges to count as bias-motivated any crimes based on political affiliation, status as a public safety official or relative of a public safety official, U.S. military affiliation or association with any other recognized group.

In prior years, bias-crime measures repeatedly have failed to garner majority support at the Statehouse due largely to Senate Republicans refusing to extend protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals on the same basis as race, religion, color, sex, disability, ethnicity and ancestry.

Times Statehouse Bureau Chief Dan Carden contributed to this story.

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Public Safety Reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.