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FBI Confidential: hate crimes know no boundaries

SALT LAKE CITY — One of the FBI’s chief concerns is investigating violations of civil rights, those basic rights all of us have, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Supervisory Special Agent Michelle Pickens investigates civil rights cases for the FBI Salt Lake City Division, which proves that hate crimes happen everywhere in the country. She tells host Becky Bruce that even in the year 2018, race is the number one motivator behind the commission of hate crimes, though religion, sexual orientation, gender and even multiple biases certainly show up on the list.

One of the most common questions investigators get when it comes to civil rights is why some cases are prosecuted and others are not. Agent Pickens explains the difference between hate speech, which may or may not be criminal, and a hate crime, in which a victim perceives a threat. In most cases, the FBI becomes involved after a local or state law enforcement agency alerts them that a hate crime may have occurred.

As an example, Agent Pickens brought up the criminal case against a man named Robert Keller, who was accused of making threats against an interracial family in southern Utah. Eventually, he pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges. He was sentenced to one year in jail, and one year supervised release, and was ordered to perform community service and undergo sensitivity and mental health counseling on his release.

Civil rights cases at the FBI also include excessive use of force, or color of law, cases. In order to be considered excessive, Agent Pickens says someone acting under their power as an authority, police or otherwise, has to deprive someone of their rights willfully. She stresses this doesn’t just have to be police; it can be any government official in a position of power. Agent Pickens says body camera and surveillance images, as well as bystander video from smartphones, can be very helpful in investigating abuses of power in use of force cases. In Salt Lake City, body camera footage was instrumental in helping show that an officer being attacked with a snow shovel was justified in opening fire.

And to that end, she says FBI agents and law enforcement officers from local and state areas have a high standard for if and when to use deadly force. According to Agent Pickens, her office clears officials far more than it finds they abused their power.