A Minnesota legislator said Wednesday that he would introduce a proposal to toughen the penalty for falsely reporting hate crimes, citing a high-profile reported attack on a gay black actor in Chicago that was recently called into question.
Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, described the measure, expected later this session, as "a reasonable step to help deter individuals from filing false police reports and to make sure that we devote law enforcement's limited resources to investigating and prosecuting legitimate bias-motivated crimes."
Zerwas said he was motivated to bring the issue forward after recent reports that police believed "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett may have staged a January attack by two masked men shouting racial and anti-gay slurs. Smollett has denied that claim through his lawyers.
In recent days, Zerwas has written about the case in multiple posts on Twitter, describing it as part of a "recent rise in fake victimization" and a symptom of media bias.
"As news reports continue to emerge, it is becoming increasingly clear that the highly publicized alleged hate crime in Chicago last month was a hoax," Zerwas said Wednesday. "We need to send a message that similar hoaxes are not welcome in Minnesota as they only seek to divide us and distract from legitimate acts of bias-motivated violence."
Minnesota's current law makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly make a false report to law enforcement, and a gross misdemeanor to falsely report criminal police misconduct. Zerwas wants to make it a gross misdemeanor — punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a $3,000 fine — to falsely report a hate crime.
The proposal would face long odds in the Democrat-controlled house, where Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, on Wednesday called it "an attention-getting bill from a member in the minority."
"I don't think we need to create a chilling effect on people reporting hate crimes, which if anything is underreported," Winkler said.
Sen. Jeff Hayden, D-Minneapolis, said more attention should be placed on "actual hate crimes and … actual injustice going on in communities and not every once in a while when somebody does something foolish."
"I would rather Rep. Zerwas work with coalitions of people, his voice as a leader, his voice as a Republican and his voice as a white man go so much farther in helping make sure we tell the state that when someone perpetrates a hate crime that's something that they shouldn't do," Hayden said.
Zerwas' legislative push comes amid an ongoing rise in reported hate crimes in Minnesota, and the country, figures that are already widely viewed as failing to account for the actual rate of such crimes.
A spokeswoman for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which collects bias-crime data from Minnesota agencies to send to the FBI, said local agencies do not submit data on false reports.
The FBI reported last year that hate crimes climbed more than 22 percent in Minnesota, up from 119 in 2016 to 146 in 2017, the most recent year for which data was available.
The bureau relies on voluntary reporting from law enforcement agencies. But Minnesota law enforcement agencies approach classifying and reporting hate crimes differently — according to the FBI's latest report, more than 310 police agencies reported zero hate crimes in 2017. That included Bloomington, where members of an Illinois militia bombed the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center because, as one member later admitted, they wanted to intimidate Muslims.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino, said preliminary figures in a study of FBI hate crime data found fewer than 50 false reports nationwide out of an estimated 21,000 crimes tallied between 2016 and 2018.
"I have no problem with general laws respecting false reporting being enforced," Levin said. "But I'm concerned that an overreaction to a minuscule problem will actually exacerbate the problem that there are real victims out there whose stories we don't hear and police reports don't classify."