June 2023 marks 25 years since James Byrd, Jr., a Black man, was murdered in Jasper, Texas by three white men, two of whom were avowed white supremacists. Byrd's lynching led the state of Texas to pass a hate crimes law, which later prompted Congress to pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.
As a result of the act, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) administers the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Program. The program supports efforts by state, local, and tribal law enforcement and prosecution agencies in conducting outreach, educating practitioners and the public, enhancing victim reporting tools, and investigating and prosecuting hate crimes committed based on a victim's perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.
The program has funded programs in 12 states, including Texas, where Byrd lived and died. The Houston Police Department is an award recipient, and their program is co-led by Jamie Byrd-Grant, James Byrd's youngest daughter. Jamie has worked for the Houston Police Department for 12 years and is a racial justice advocate.
"I joined the Houston Police Department because I vowed to be the change I wanted to see in others. I haven't always wanted to be in law enforcement. To keep my dad's memory alive, I wanted to lead people to know there is no place for hate," Jamie said during a recent BJA training for new grant recipients.
The Houston Police Department is innovatively using its BJA funding. The department's leadership decided to award half their funding to the Houston Coalition Against Hate. The coalition is working with organizations across the Houston metropolitan area to educate individuals and organizations on what is a hate crime and how to respond to instances of hate.
"We exist to reduce hate and encourage belonging, and we incorporate all marginalized intersections as they relate to hate crimes." — Houston Coalition Against Hate executive director Marjorie Joseph
Houston is just one of 18 awards across 12 states made to justice agencies with funding from the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Program and Demonstration Program.
In Nassau County, New York, the District Attorney's Office uses its grant to handle and track hate crimes. An improved case-tracking system allows the office to address the cases most efficiently by determining where hate crimes are happening, who is targeted, and where the hot spots exist. The office hopes that improved data collection will allow law enforcement agents to better patrol areas where hate incidents may occur and be proactive against hate crimes. Additionally, Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, Georgia, funds a victim witness advocate dedicated to hate crimes for LGBTQ+ communities. The advocate can support victims during the duration of a victim's case.
Each community uses BJA funding differently, but the end goal is the same: to reduce hate crime incidents.
"The work is being done, but we have a long way to go. Hate and extremism are at a historic high. This is the first step in creating lasting change to reduce the threat of hate crimes." — Jaime Byrd
To learn more, visit the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Program section of the BJA website.