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Mentoring Future Hate Crimes Investigators

Success Spotlight

The Hate Crimes Unit at the Westchester County, New York district attorney’s office is mentoring future hate crimes investigators through their student internship program.

While some internship programs offer little more than busy work for students hoping for career experience, a New York district attorney’s office provides direct, on-the-job training for future hate crimes analysts and prosecutors.

The Westchester County District Attorney’s Office (WCDAO) in Westchester County, New York, leveraged its existing internship program to give undergraduate and law school students an opportunity to work with expert hate crimes prosecuting attorneys, analysts, and law enforcement staff.

WCDAO received funding to hire a crime analyst and build its Hate Crimes Unit staff through the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s (BJA) Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Program. Hiring a crime analyst allowed the Unit to increase its capacity to track, investigate, and prosecute bias incidents and hate crimes, which also created a need for extra staff support. The District Attorney’s Office also received guidance from the Institute for Intergovernmental Research (IIR), BJA’s training and technical assistance provider for this program.

Given the challenges law enforcement agencies and prosecutors’ offices face with recruitment and retention, the WCDAO Hate Crimes Unit internship program “is a perfect example of how you start gaining interest and building your bench for future employees,” says Diane Ragans, IIR Senior Research Associate and Technical Assistance Lead.

Building the Unit

To address concerns about bias incidents and hate crimes in the county, WCDAO, under the direction of District Attorney Miriam Rocah, created the Hate Crimes Unit and appointed a Hate Crimes Coordinator in 2021. At the beginning, the unit had one Assistant District Attorney working part-time on hate crimes. It added a full-time crime analyst in 2022 with funding from BJA, but as hate crimes reporting increased, the unit needed even more personnel. To fill this gap, IIR staff was excited when WCDAO reported that they started using interns, leveraging WCDAO’s BJA’s funding and other resources to get the job done, says Ragans.

This need for additional staff was a direct result of the new unit’s reporting initiative, explains Catalina Blanco Buitrago, Senior Assistant District Attorney and WCDAO’s Hate Crimes Coordinator. “Bringing interns into the Hate Crimes Unit started from a realization that we could do a lot more if we had just a little bit more help,” she says.

Blanco Buitrago started working with WCDAO’s Chief Development & Training Officer in 2022 to select and assign interns to the unit. Undergraduate and law school student interns work in the Hate Crimes Unit for a semester. Since mid-2022, the unit has had an intern every semester, and they expanded the program to two interns during summer 2023.

On-the-Job Training

Interns are assigned tasks based on their status as undergraduate or law students. For law students, the work is very case specific, says Blanco Buitrago. For instance, she may be working on an indictment with a motion coming up, in which case the intern can help Blanco Buitrago finish the motion.

Law student interns update case law in training materials and assist with legal research. For example, the unit’s Senior Crime Analyst may review a video for a case and realize there is possibly a legal issue that would affect the trajectory of the case. This would be turned over to the law intern to research and determine useful legal arguments to be made in court.

Law interns also get a chance to think through the appropriate charges on a case so that they can learn to spot issues and form educated opinions based on the evidence.

“When we go to court, we take them with us. If we have conferences with the judge, [they] come with us and conference the case with the judge. So they really feel like these are real cases, not something out of a textbook.” — Catalina Blanco Buitrago

Undergraduate student assignments are broader and generally involve analysis that does not require a legal background or experience doing legal research. This can include creating transcriptions of police body-worn camera footage and providing real-world opinions on how a case may look to a jury. The Unit also leverages interns’ data-mapping skills to upgrade the hate crimes database, “populating their new database with all the old data, which takes a lot of time and energy,” says IIR’s Ragans.

Reaping the Rewards

Thanks to intern assistance, the Hate Crimes Unit now has added bandwidth to grow its training outreach to law enforcement agencies, schools, and community groups through educational presentations on hate crimes. Providing this type of instruction is a previously underexplored space for WCDAO—one that is clearly paying off. "We keep getting called back to the Police Academy, and we’re getting more reporting data on hate crimes from more police departments because our trainings emphasize the importance of information sharing," says Blanco Buitrago. School principals are also sharing the training materials with staff and administrators at other schools.

An added benefit is that interns participate in training outreach programs and can implement what they learn, says Marissa Ambrosio, IIR Senior Program Specialist. “This real-world application is the whole purpose of an internship.”

BJA’s funding support of the Hate Crimes Unit through IIR and the addition of the crime analyst is helping transform the lives of program participants.

One summer 2023 intern sums up the experience: “I’m leaving this internship with so much more knowledge about bias incidents and hate crimes and what I can do to prevent these incidents from happening.”


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Date Published: September 28, 2023