Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has been holding talks to assemble a working group on hate — or “bias-motivated” — crimes with the aim of enhancing law enforcement’s ability to better record and head off acts of domestic terrorism before they happen.
The initiative, which brought together some of Minnesota’s top state and federal officials in a recent closed-door meeting, represents a new chapter in the new attorney general’s focus on strengthening partnerships to counter rising levels of religious, ethnic, racially motivated or anti-gay crime.
“The bottom line is people are nervous, they are afraid, they don’t know what to do and they’re hoping the government steps up and protects them in their houses of worship,” Ellison said in an interview.
Ellison and other officials say they are reviewing longstanding inconsistencies in police agencies’ collection of data on hate crimes and Minnesota’s statutes dealing with crimes fueled by bias.
In his first five months in office, Ellison also privately met with Minnesota community and faith leaders and attended local vigils held in the aftermath of terror attacks such as the March massacre of 51 Muslims in New Zealand.
The uptick in chatter between officials like Ellison, federal authorities and law enforcement from around the state underscore a recognition that the effects of hate crimes are not limited to where they happen.
Instead, the acts can serve as a potent radicalization tool: a livestream of the carnage in New Zealand circulated millions of times on Facebook and Twitter while tech companies failed in their attempts to pull down the shooter’s manifesto.
Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, who is working with Ellison to steer statewide responses to hate and domestic terror, said he learned of hatred spewed toward Minnesota Muslim and Jewish communities around the state in the aftermath of the New Zealand attack, as well as after an April synagogue shooting in California.
“All of them said they had received Facebook or e-mail or voice mail threats,” Harrington said. “That wasn’t the story you were hearing because the focus was rightfully so on New Zealand and other places. But because we weren’t hearing that, you can’t respond to what you don’t hear.”
Harrington helped push for the recent extension of a grant program that funds security efforts at houses of worship in Minnesota.
“Sadly, as we see an increase in acts of violence targeting houses of worship nationally and internationally, the need for close coordination with law enforcement is a necessity,” said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. “To complement the work with law enforcement, we also need resources to improve the physical security of houses of worship.”
The 2017 bombing of a Bloomington mosque carried out by three members of an Illinois militia remains a powerful reminder of the short distance between threatening words and acts of terror. Harrington uses the case as a call for increased information-sharing with his counterparts at other states’ law enforcement agencies.
“You really can’t expect Bloomington to be tracking Illinois alt-right, white supremacist activity,” Harrington said.
Reports on the rise
Ellison took office amid a three-year surge in hate crimes reported across the country. According to the FBI’s most recent numbers, for 2017, reported hate crimes in Minnesota soared 22%.
But the FBI’s figures, though the most commonly cited, are widely seen as a vast undercounting of the true scope of bias-motivated acts around the country because the bureau relies on voluntary reporting from state law enforcement.
Minnesota has consistently provided data to the FBI, but police departments across the state classify and report hate crimes differently.
That could change after a review by Ellison’s office and under legislation that Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, plans to introduce next year.
Hornstein has also met with Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and plans to discuss the issue with the state’s Police Officer Standards and Training Board later this year.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Hornstein is not one to take the current rise in hatred lightly.
“No historical event is the same … but the issue is that anytime you see an increase and anytime you see an organization of hate and extremism, it has to be confronted, it has to be stamped out,” Hornstein said. “It can’t be allowed to fester and be part of our institutional life.”
Gov. Tim Walz, in a recent interview, meanwhile lauded efforts by Ellison and Harrington to examine responses to hateful acts and crimes in Minnesota, describing their approach as especially proactive.
“If we’re going to do everything we can to just hope this doesn’t happen, that’s not good enough,” Walz said. “We’re trying to understand, and I think where they’re looking at it is are there signals there that are things we can do to prevent this from happening?”
Ellison’s working group approach may follow in the mold of what former Attorney General Lori Swanson assembled to recommend changes to Minnesota’s sex assault laws after a Star Tribune investigation last year. This year, Ellison also convened a task force on skyrocketing drug prices.
Feds are hopeful
The attorney general’s recent meetings with law enforcement also brought together FBI leadership and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the three militia members believed responsible for bombing Bloomington’s Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in 2017.
In a statement, Jill Sanborn, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis Division, described Ellison’s work as strengthening partnerships across state and local agencies that she described as “critical for law enforcement to identify and mitigate hate crime activity.”
Days after the law enforcement roundtable in Ellison’s office, U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald invited Ellison and his staff to her Minneapolis office to further chart out ways to coordinate both of their unique statewide jurisdictions.
The new push on hate crimes and domestic terrorism — which will include visits by Ellison this summer to discuss the topic in outstate Minnesota — comes as federal authorities grapple with keeping up with a rise in domestic extremist attacks around the country.
While the FBI can rely on federal terrorism laws to investigate alleged supporters of international terror groups like ISIS or al-Qaida, such laws are more limited for followers of white power or other U.S.-based extremist movements.
MacDonald said “there’s been a lot of talk in the U.S. attorney community” in support of a new federal statute to make it easier to charge crimes deemed to be acts of domestic terrorism.
She also remains hopeful that the heightened focus from state officials like Ellison can help produce a better crop of annual numbers to lay out a fuller picture of the nature of hate crimes around the state.
“Without data, you just have an opinion,” MacDonald said. “Unless you have some statistics to support what you’re saying, some people might not understand the scope of the problem.”