Advocates weigh in on how Smollett case can hurt reports of LGBTQ hate crimes

Justin Udo
February 21, 2019 - 1:00 pm

Kristen Johanson | KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Actor Jussie Smollett is under arrest and facing a felony charge of disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report, which claimed he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack.

Smollett's case highlights some serious issues when it comes to reporting hate crimes and assaults.

RELATED: Police: 'Empire' actor staged attack to 'promote his career'

Alexander Olson with the Liberty City Democratic club says for years people in the LGBTQ community have been wary about coming forward to report crimes against them. 

"Members of the queer community already had issue wondering if their cases were going to be taken seriously, regardless of Mr. Smollett," Olson said.

"This isn't new this week. It's not, 'Oh, suddenly my story might not be taken seriously,'" Olson said. "Your story might not have ever been taken seriously. It's an ongoing problem, regardless of the news."

He says that fear comes as a result of a litany of issues. One of them is the potential backlash someone could face at work if their case were discovered.

"Pennsylvania does not have workplace protections for members of the queer community. If I came out at my job tomorrow, they could fire me," Olson said. "And they would be well within their rights in the state of Pennsylvania to do so."

There are protections in some cities, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but there are a lot of regions wiwhere LQBTQ people do not have work place protections. 

That's why Randy Duque with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations says he sees some other reasons for underreporting. 

"People who don't report acts of hate, it's either because they didn't know how to, or they didn't feel it was worth reporting," he said. "And those not feeling it's worth reporting is because it's like, 'Oh, I've gone through this so many times.'"

He said, "Whether it be a hate crime or a bias instance, I think people need to let us know."

A 2017 FBI report shows that only 23 police agencies out of more than 1,400 in Pennsylvania reported hate crimes.

This leads Olson to believe that getting a report in the right hands is another hurdle that keeps attack victims from going to authorities.

"You may be dealing with a police department that is not queer friendly," Olson said.

Olson says he hopes Smollett's case is not an abuse of hate crime legislation. He says if Smollett is lying about his attack, it does not help the case of others who have been abused and want to come forward.

"If the allegations are true, that's deeply upsetting," he said. "Hate crime legislation plays a vital role in protecting the vulnerable, and members of society. Hate crime legislation needs to be respected as such."

Amber Hikes, the director of Philadelphia's Office of LGBTQ Affairs, says she does not see the Smollett case having lasting affects on public opinion when a person comes forward about a hate crime or act of violence. 

"I feel honestly that if this one person's account, this story, this account makes you any less likely to believe the stories of victims, then you probably weren't going to believe victims in the first place," Hikes said. 

Hikes says she does worry that the Smollett case will have a more lasting impact on victims reporting their crimes to the proper authorities.

She adds the LGBTQ community already has a number of reasons they do not report hate crimes, which lead to a suppression of the numbers.

"They're terrified for their livelihood, they're terrified for friends and family, some of them are not yet out," she said. 

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Listen to an interview with Amber Hikes, director of the Office of LGBT Affairs for the City of Philadelphia, below: