Advocates: Smollett Controversy Could Discourage Victims | WBEZ
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Advocates: Smollett Controversy Could Discourage Victims From Reporting Hate Crimes

While the public still doesn’t know what actually happened the night Empire actor Jussie Smollett was allegedly attacked, some fear the case could ultimately make it even harder for victims of hate crimes to come forward — and to be believed if they do.

Smollett said two masked men attacked him and put a rope around his neck after shouting racial and homophobic slurs at him in the early morning hours of Jan. 29 in the Streeterville neighborhood. 

Then on Wednesday, Smollett was charged with making a false police report.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said prosecutors charged Smollett with felony disorderly conduct, an offense that could bring one to three years in prison and force the actor to pay for the cost of the investigation into the Jan. 29 beating.

The charges emerged on the same day that detectives and two brothers who were earlier deemed suspects testified before a grand jury. Smollett's attorneys met with prosecutors and police, but it was unknown what they discussed or whether Smollett attended the meeting. The attorneys did not reply to requests for comment.

The announcement of the charges came after a flurry of activity in recent days that included lengthy interviews of the brothers by authorities, a search of their home and their release after police cleared them.

Imani Rupert-Gordon, executive director of Affinity Community Services, says it’s important to remember that while the Smollett case has garnered a lot of media attention, the case shouldn’t carry so much weight that it discredits other victims reporting hate crimes.

“I don’t know what to say about this particular incident. But I know this is one incident, and that’s how we should treat it,” she said.

“Hate crimes go underreported, and it’s because people have a fear that they are not going to be believed. But also (they) don’t always have the best experience with systems,” Rupert-Gordon said. “When they are talking to law enforcement, they haven’t always had the best experience with people.”

The U.S. Department of Justice cited such issues in its 2017 report on the Chicago Police Department following a 13-month investigation launched shortly after the city released a video of the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

According to the report, the civil rights unit in the Chicago Police Department, which investigates hate crimes, had two investigators. By comparison, a similar unit in New York City had 26 officers.

“The number of hate crimes is still drastically under-reported, given that the unit is so understaffed and that detectives in other units sometimes minimize the seriousness of crimes that appear to be motivated by hate,” the report states. “Detectives minimize the seriousness of such crimes saying things like ‘a crime is a crime’ or ‘so they got called a name.’ ”

The report also states that the members of Chicago’s transgender community voiced concerns over their treatment by police. Officers failed to use victim’s proper gender identity, according to the report.

When Willow Karma tried to report an aggressive assault a few years ago, Karma said it felt like police officers didn’t take the assault seriously.

“I felt they didn’t act quick enough or act fast enough,” said Karma, who is 26 years old, black and transgender.

Karma and a friend were in Boystown when a group of men approached and beat them up. The beating lasted about 20 minutes, Karma said. When police arrived, an officer offered to call for an ambulance but they didn’t go after the assailants.

“I was just like, what?” Karma said. “He wrote the report about me getting jumped, but no one acted on it.”

The day after the attack, Karma saw the men that attacked them. Karma reported the names and descriptions of the assailants to police. No one was arrested.

The Chicago Police Department declined to be interviewed for this story.

María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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