GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As hate crimes continue to rise, West Michigan’s chief federal prosecutor revealed new steps to protect civil rights Friday night.
The FBI said Monday that more than 11,600 hate crime incidents were reported nationwide in 2022. That’s up nearly 7% from 2021.
Nearly 15,000 law enforcement agencies submitted their data. Not every state requires agencies to report or collect data on hate crimes, so more cases are likely out there.
Most of the hate crimes — nearly 30% of them — targeted Black people. A stark increase in the incidents came against Jewish people, with more than 1,000 cases reported.
“There was a 26% increase in the number of antisemitic threats, which of course right now is particularly on the rise,” Mark Totten, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, said.
Totten charged one of those cases this summer. Seann Pietila, 19, of Pickford, Michigan, is accused of plotting to commit a mass shooting at a synagogue in East Lansing. Law enforcement said they found weapons, knives, ammunition, magazines, gas masks and a Nazi flag in his home.
In June, the federal prosecutor brought charges against the member of a white supremacist group accused of defacing a synagogue with swastikas in Hancock, Michigan.
“These are not just ideas of what could happen,” Totten said. “These are real threats we’re seeing right now in the Western District.”
On Friday night, Totten announced actions to guard civil rights at the NAACP’s Freedom Fund Gala and Awards ceremony in downtown Grand Rapids. The first effort involves creating a new team of four assistant U.S. attorneys in Totten’s office who are dedicated to handling civil rights cases. One of the positions is funded through an allocation from the U.S. Department of Justice, Totten said.
The cases will include “prosecuting hate crimes, stopping discrimination and protecting the right to vote,” he said.
“This is a moment right now when we are seeing a rise in hate crimes, when we’re seeing a rise of abridgements of people’s civil rights,” Totten said. “We just want to make sure we’re leaning into it.”
The second initiative is the launch of a “United Against Hate” campaign. It’s focused on educating the public about their federal civil rights protections and how they can identify and report hate crimes to law enforcement and the FBI.
Totten’s office is performing outreach through a series of public events, bringing together civil rights groups, faith-based communities and other local organizations.
“I think it’s really important to listen to people,” Totten said. “It’s important for us to focus our efforts on where they’re most needed.”
“Bring together folks that do this work when it arises, but be a little more intentional about it,” he continued. “Make sure we’re connected. Make sure we’re reaching out to the community as well.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland first announced in September 2022 that 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices would take part in the outreach initiative.
“During the UAH program, participants may work through hypotheticals about hate crimes and bias incidents,” the Justice Department website states. “Through video clips featuring real stories, participants can learn about the impact of hate crimes and bias incidents on communities. Facilitators lead rich discussions that help participants reflect on concrete actions they can take to identify, report, and, most importantly, help prevent acts of hate.”