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Hate crimes against LGBTQ Mainers outpaced the national rate in 2021

PORTLAND, MAINE -- 11/05/21 -- Maine's new U.S. Attorney, Darcie McElwee, stands outside the Federal Courthouse in Portland on Friday Nov. 5, 2021. The 48-year-old Caribou native has spent her entire legal career working as a prosecutor.
Troy R. Bennett
Darcie McElwee, Maine's U.S. attorney, said the number of hate crimes in the state in 2021 represent a call to action for her and her office. 

The number of hate crimes reported in Maine dropped slightly last year after exploding in 2020, but a greater portion in the state target LGBTQ residents than in the rest of the nation, according to new data released by the FBI.

Maine’s top federal prosecutor said the numbers serve as a call to action for her and her office to build trust among marginalized communities in the state so they see the value of reporting hate crimes to police.

Police agencies reported 75 hate crimes in 2021, which was down slightly from the 83 they reported in 2020, when the number of hate crimes had quadrupled in one year, in line with a national rise.

Nationally, the FBI reported a lower number of hate crimes in 2021 than in 2020, but the agency’s data doesn’t include submissions from some of the nation’s largest police departments, and other analyses have shown a rise in hate crimes. The FBI had switched to a new reporting system, and a number of police departments did not make the switch.

In Maine, the FBI said it received data from 129 of 132 police departments, a higher rate than the two-thirds of departments that reported data nationally.

The most common hate crimes in Maine targeted Black people and members of the LGBTQ community. There were 35 incidents involving anti-Black or anti-African American bias last year and 24 that involved anti-LGBTQ bias, according to the data.

There were six hate crimes reported that targeted Jewish Mainers, and three that targeted people because of their gender identity.

Thirty-two percent of Maine hate crimes targeted LGBTQ residents, higher than the national rate of 16 percent.

Darcie McElwee, Maine’s U.S. attorney, said the newly released numbers are a call to action for her.

“What I’m called to do is to continue to do more outreach with communities to build trust, but also, at the same time, to do more education of law enforcement so that they understand how to identify these nuances,” she said. “The more they understand about a particular population and what they are experiencing and perceiving, the better job they’re going to do investigating that crime.”

Hate crimes are unique, McElwee said. Investigators looking into hate crimes have to dig deep and unpack what may have been going on in a person’s mind to determine if hate or bias was the motivating factor, she said.

“But frankly, it’s akin to some of the domestic violence work, sexual assault work that our office and the Department [of Justice] has done over the years,” she said. “They’re complicated dynamics, but they’re important cases, and we want to do important cases, even when they’re difficult.”

Outreach to marginalized communities and combating hate crimes has been a focus for McElwee since President Joe Biden appointed her the top federal prosecutor in Maine last year, she said.

In her experience, McElwee said she has found that in many of the experiences described to her by groups that represent marginalized people are microaggressions — instances of indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination — which are difficult to prosecute.

“It doesn’t mean it’s not equally disturbing, upsetting, and traumatizing, and causes a great deal of fear in people that then leads them to be unwilling to talk to law enforcement in the future,” she said. “Unless we can understand and continue to do work with marginalized communities where we educate them on what is required to prosecute a hate crime, then I can see that they may not understand that we are taking it seriously.”

Nationwide, only about 45 percent of hate crimes can be prosecuted.

And while the number of reported hate crimes in Maine dropped slightly last year, the numbers are still higher than they were before 2020. McElwee said she hopes that means more people trust that there’s value in reporting these crimes to law enforcement, but she acknowledges that might not be the case.

“The federal hate crime statute requires pretty significant violence to be involved, so some of these microaggressions don’t necessarily rise to the level of a charged offense,” she said. “But with that said, that doesn’t mean that we can’t do significant outreach to these communities to try to teach community members that we, the law enforcement community, take those microaggressions seriously.”