Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reporting of anti-gay hate crimes usually under reported, not made-up as happened in Montana

The story of Joseph Baken, a 22-year-old Billings, Mont. man who reported being a victim of a violent gay bashing then recanted a few days later, is an incredible twist to a widespread, complex crime that usually goes unreported rather than the other way around.

Just a couple of weeks prior to the media reports about Baken’s allegations that three men beat him up on Aug. 5 outside of a Montana nightclub, I learned that a gay Dallas man had been attacked and robbed by a group of men in the parking lot of a popular gay bar. Although pictures of his bruised face circulated on Facebook, he declined when I asked if he would consent to an interview. He never responded to a question about whether he reported the incident to the police so I’m assuming he didn’t as the alleged incident apparently went unnoticed by the local gay newspaper.

According to hate crime experts, that’s the way it usually goes with anti-gay hate crimes – undocumented because of embarrassment about being gay -- so I was surprised to learn that the injuries Baken received to his face actually occurred when he tried to do a backflip on a sidewalk during a celebration of his 22nd birthday and landed flat on his face.  It’s unclear how much alcohol Baken had imbibed when he attempted the acrobatic stunt, but I’m assuming that might also have been a factor in his decision to make a false police report.

Whatever the reasoning, the college student certainly didn’t do himself or the LGBT community any favors by fabricating a hate crime. He pleaded guilty in Missoula, Mont., Municipal Court to filing a false police report and received a 180-day suspended sentence and a $300 fine when a video of his failed stunt showed up at the police department and the local newspaper.

That no doubt was a moment of enlightenment that left a lot of people stunned and feeling like beating up the alleged victim for real.

Police said they decided to file a false reporting charge against Baken because of the “fear and anger” that erupted when he identified a business and gave descriptions of non-existent suspects.

The false allegation was a slap in the face to the Montana police officers who took the complaint seriously, the reporters who tried to raise awareness about a serious problem and the owner of the nightclub who suffered unfair negative publicity as a result of a lie by a gay patron who apparently was welcomed in the establishment. It no doubt also deeply discouraged all of the good people of Montana who spoke out against anti-hate crime when they heard about the alleged attack.

And now what’s even worse is that it likely will make it even more difficult for someone who actually suffers an anti-gay hate crime in Montana to come forward because of fear of not being believed.

That’s a shame because LGBT people are “far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crime,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes and hate groups.  The law center’s study of FBI hate crime statistics indicates that LGBT people are 2.4 times more likely to suffer a violent hate crime than Jews, 2.6 times more likely to be attacked than blacks, 4.4 times more likely than Muslims, 13.8 times more likely than Latinos and 41.5 times more likely than straight white people.

The false reporting of anti-gay hate crimes and other hate crimes involving different types of biases such as race and religion are not without precedent, but fortunately they appear to be infrequent considering how many hate crimes do get documented every year.  I found only a handful of incidents of false reports of anti-gay hate crimes in other areas of the country in 2012.

After dwelling on the subject for about a week, the only plausible reason I can come up with for people to make a false report about a hate crime would be that they enjoy the attention and drama of the moment.  But I bet Baken, who reportedly was a background player in a 2011 film about college life called “Judas Kiss,” is having a little trouble reconnecting with that feeling now.

So I guess the moral to the story here is that if you are a victim of a hate crime it needs to be reported. If you aren’t, don’t make one up. You might get a brief rush, but the hangover will undoubtedly last for a very long time. 

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