Twenty five Senate Democrats urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use the Justice Department to combat hate crimes Thursday after what they call an “alarming increase” in bias incidents around the country.
“We write to urge you to make combatting hate crimes a major focus at the Department of Justice and prioritize funding for the protection of civil rights,” the Senators wrote, citing a recent spike in hate incidents as recorded by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the FBI. They also noted that it was likely that the FBI numbers significantly undercount the actual number of bias incidents, since 17% of local law enforcement departments have not recorded a single hate crime in six years.
Since January, at least 90 bomb threats have been called in to Jewish centers and schools, and the Center for American Islamic Relations has tracked a 40% increase in anti-Muslim incidents between 2015 and 2016, the worst year since they started keeping track of hate incidents in 2009.
The letter comes as Sessions is under fire for reportedly meeting with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign, then testifying to Congress during his recent confirmation hearings that he “did not have communications with the Russians.” Top Democrats are calling for Sessions to resign, while Republicans are urging him to recuse himself from the ongoing DOJ probe into Russia’s interference with the U.S. election.
The letter was orchestrated by Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who is the first openly gay senator in history. It references the widespread concern about Sessions’ record on civil rights, particularly given his opposition to the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act as a senator. “You stated publicly during your confirmation hearings that you would indeed enforce this law,” the letter says. “Now, more than ever, we need a clear demonstration of your commitment to doing so.”
The Senators are asking Sessions to fully fund the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, which oversees neutral mediation of community concerns, and the Civil Rights Division, which enforces federal civil rights and hate crime laws.
“It is imperative that the Department, under your leadership, send a strong message that violence borne out of hatred based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other characteristic will not be tolerated,” the letter says.