Policing Hatred: Law Enforcement, Civil Rights, and Hate Crime

Policing Hatred: Law Enforcement, Civil Rights, and Hate Crime

Policing Hatred: Law Enforcement, Civil Rights, and Hate Crime

Policing Hatred: Law Enforcement, Civil Rights, and Hate Crime


Policing Hatred explores the intersection of race and law enforcement in the controversial area of hate crime. The nation’s attention has recently been focused on high-profile hate crimes such as the dragging death of James Byrd and the torture-murder of Matthew Shepard. This book calls attention to the thousands of other individuals who each year are attacked because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation. The study of hate crimes challenges common assumptions regarding perpetrators and victims: most of the accused tend to be white, while most of their victims are not.

Policing Hatred is an in-depth ethnographic study of how hate crime law works in practice, from the perspective of those enforcing it. It examines the ways in which the police handle bias crimes, and the social impact of those efforts. Bell exposes the power that law enforcement personnel have to influence the social environment by showing how they determine whether an incident will be charged as a bias crime.

Drawing on her unprecedented access to a police hate crime unit, Bell’s work brings to life the stories of female, Black, Latino, and Asian American detectives, in addition to those of their white male counterparts. Policing Hatred also explores the impact of victim’s identity on each officers handling of bias crimes and addresses how the police treat defendants’ First Amendment rights. Bell’s vivid evidence from the field argues persuasively for the need to have the police diligently address even low-level offenses, such as vandalism, given their devastating cumulative effects on society.


The brutal killing in Texas of James Byrd, a Black man, brought hate crimes to the fore of the public agenda in the late 1990s. In early June of 1998 three White men chained Byrd behind a truck and dragged him to death. Byrd’s killing was widely recognized as a “hate” or bias crime. A bias crime is one motivated by prejudice toward one of the victim’s characteristics, such as race, color, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, and the perpetrator of the crime usually does not share that characteristic with the victim. In the wake of Byrd’s murder, many activists called for passage of stronger hate crimes legislation.

Another incident, though far less publicized, occurred the year before Byrd’s murder. The episode began early in the morning of July 24, 1997, in Elk Creek, Virginia, at an informal gathering at which Louie J. Ceparano, Garnett Paul “G.P.” Johnson, two other men, and a woman were drinking. Ceparano pinned down Johnson on his back and one of the others heard him say as he stood over him, “We’re going to take G.P. out there and put him on that white cross and burn him.” Ceparano snapped the watch off Johnson’s wrist, remarking, “You won’t need the watch where you’re going, they’ve got their own time down there.” Ceparano and another White man then dragged Johnson outside, doused him with gasoline, and set him afire. One of the White men then moved Johnson’s body to a nearby sandy ridge and beheaded it. The accused killers were White; the victim, Black. One witness remembered Ceparano calling Johnson a “nigger” during the party.

When news of G. P. Johnson’s death spread to the rest of the country, many believed that the difference in race between the victim and the perpetrators, the use of racial slurs prior to the crime, and the brutality of the murder marked the crime as a potential hate crime. Yet Johnson’s death was not prosecuted under Virginia’s hate crime statute. The Grayson County sheriff responsible for investigating the crime . . .

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