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People Who Inspired BJA Programs: The Legacy of Matthew Shepard

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Matthew Shepard would have turned 46 this December. Instead of celebrating his birthday, we remember a life cut short, and we renew our commitment to helping communities investigate, prosecute, and prevent hate crimes.

On October 7, 1998, two men abducted Matthew Shepard and drove him to a remote area in Laramie, Wyoming, where they bludgeoned him, tied him to a rail fence, and left him to die. Shepard was found 18 hours later and rushed to the hospital, where he lingered on the edge of death for nearly five days before succumbing to his injuries. A student at the University of Wyoming, Shepard was targeted because he was gay. His assailants confessed that they approached Shepard at a bar and pretended to be gay to gain his confidence before they kidnapped and attacked him.

Although federal laws at the time covered hate crimes based on race, color, religion, and national origin, none included sexuality or sexual orientation. Shepard's death was evidence of the physical danger many LGBTQ+ persons faced in the United States, and it brought national and international attention to hate crime legislation. In 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and it was signed into law by President Barack Obama in October 2009—eleven years after Shepard’s death.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) is proud to administer this vital program. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Program funds efforts by state, local, and tribal law enforcement and prosecution agencies and their partners to investigate and prosecute hate crimes, educate practitioners and the public, and enhance victim reporting tools for crimes committed based on a victim's perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. This program also provides support for the extraordinary expenses associated with investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.

For example, in Broward County, Florida, the State Attorney's office received a $300,000 grant to hire an attorney focused on prosecuting hate crimes, fund a victim advocate in the Hate Crimes Unit, and assign a new phone line to receive hate crime tips. BJA funds were also used to create a Broward County Hate Crimes Task Force, which includes law enforcement and community partners, to help increase public awareness of hate crimes and educate at-risk individuals and groups.

In Westchester, New York, the District Attorney's office used its BJA grant to hire a crime analyst dedicated to hate crimes. The crime analyst and a district attorney work together to ensure hate crimes are handled equitably. In addition to their work in the courtroom, the district attorney has conducted several trainings in the community and for law enforcement officers, including new and seasoned police officers undergoing training at the police academy and local school resource officers. The goal is to address hate issues before they grow into hate crimes.

Grant recipients also have access to training and technical assistance to help increase their knowledge about hate crimes and build their programs' capacity to investigate, prosecute, and prevent hate crimes. Learn more about the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Program.

Date Published: December 1, 2022