Kenai passes resolution to expand hate crimes statute

Feb 6, 2020

The Kenai City Council on Wednesday joined Soldotna in passing a resolution supporting House Bill 198, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes under the state's existing hate crimes statute.

Tammie Willis testified to the council. She was attacked at her home in Sterling on Dec. 9. Before that, she found a note on her truck full of gay slurs and threatening violence. She also had her windshield smashed by a rock that bore a gay slur. She says the Federal Bureau of Investigations has taken over the case under the federal hate crimes statute, since Alaska law lacks a provision to consider the three instances together as a hate crime.

“For the life of me, I don't know why every other class was included in the list of aggravators but sexual orientation and gender identity,” Willis said. “But we are the population of people that is facing the most violence and the most hate right now. It's grown tremendously over the last three years and it's being definitely felt here on the peninsula, as well. So this is an important piece of legislation. And your resolution means a lot to us in the LGBTQ community because it shows that this is a community that's not going to tolerate the hate."

Willis says two things would change if HB 198 were to become law. It would mean hate crime statistics could be tracked for Alaska. There's currently no good way to gather that data since Alaska doesn't consider crimes motivated by anti-LGBTQ sentiment as hate crimes.

"Consequently, when a hate crime occurs towards someone in the LGBTQ community, whether the troopers or the Soldotna police or anybody actually looks into it and considers it a hate crime, it's not being reported to the FBI, so it's not included in the FBI statistics, so we don't have any real numbers of what the hate crime rate is in Alaska against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity," she said.

HB 198 would also create the means for stricter sentencing. For Willis, that would mean she would feel safer, longer.

"Two months later, it's still not safe for me to go home,” she said. “If this person's caught and under Alaska's hate crime they would get a longer sentence. Which means I have longer to be able to live here and feel safe. That's not something I have felt in many months." 

HB 198's expansion of the state's hate crimes statute would apply to everyone, as heterosexual and cisgender are also forms of sexual orientation and gender identification.

Pushback against such resolutions has generally come along three lines of thought — it's not that common of a problem, legislation doesn't stop someone from hating others and Alaska's hate crimes statute should be revamped on a larger scale than what HB 198 proposes to do.  

Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel wanted to see broader legislation.

"I would like to see a resolution from the city that addresses something along the lines of unprovoked assault based on a bias,” Gabriel said. “That, to me, could be an aggravator. Because it's not something that that person did or they're doing to someone, it's simply out of that is hate. And I think that's something, for me, that encompasses more of the community."

Councilman Robert Peterkin said he's seen and heard of bullying in the community, but this was the first he'd heard of anti-LGBTQ sentiment rising to the level of assault.

"I had probably a dozen gay friends that I knew around here and some people teased them and stuff and some people didn't but it never got, thank God, to this level, and of us some stuck up for the people and some of us didn't,” Peterkin said. “I was kind of the guy that always tried to stick up for the people that were getting picked on. And I'm really not convinced this is enough or is going to even help. I'm not blind that people are picking on all sorts of people, whether it be that community or many other different things."

Councilmen Tim Navarre and Bob Molloy co-sponsored the resolution after attending a safety town hall meeting in Soldotna. Navarre says his eyes were opened.

"I thought, 'OK, I'll go to the town hall meeting but I don't see that in our community.' I just didn't. I hadn't heard about it that much. I mean, sure, there was some, but I didn't see the harm and the hurt that was being caused in our communities by hatred," Navarre said.

Navarre asked his fellow councilmembers to support the resolution, even if they think the state's hate crimes statute should be changed overall.

"If you talk about the uncomfortability we have sometimes of thinking, 'Oh, well, I'm going to support this and what are people going to think about that?' Think about what this class of people go through, even if only is 3.7 percent of the city of Kenai's population,” he said. “What those people go through, the uncomfortability that they have. We all talk about tolerance, we all talk about equality we all talk about whatever. Well this is the time, until there's another change or another bill that we can support some other way. But right now, today is the day that we support and show support for this class and this aggravator because there's real people."

The council voted 5 to 2 to approve the resolution, with Mayor Gabriel and Councilman Peterkin casting the no votes.