When Does a Crime in Texas Become a Hate Crime, and What Can You Do to Report It?


Austin has had its share of hatred in the last year: residents of Hyde Park discovered anti-Semitic leaflets on their lawns, an 18-year-old was charged with arson for setting fire to a synagogue, and the coronavirus outbreak sparked an increase in racial animosity toward Asian Americans.

Residents and local officials in Austin, according to community groups dedicated to combating bigotry, antisemitism, and racism, need to understand Texas hate crime laws, how they function, how to report a hate crime, and why they should.

“The topic is more topical now, even though hate crimes have occurred for a long period of time — but there have been more public occurrences that have awoken people,” said Renee Lafair, regional director of the Austin Anti-Defamation League. “People are seeing an increase in hate crimes and hate occurrences on a fairly regular basis, and they are troubled by it and want to help stop it and heal their community.”


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Congregation Beth Israel’s front doors are burnt on Monday, November 1, 2021, following a fire at the Central Austin synagogue about 9:05 p.m. Sunday.

Three hate crime occurrences have been reported in Austin in the first two months of 2022. According to city records, 25 instances were reported last year.

According to the most recent data available from the Texas Department of Public Safety, a total of 550 hate crime incidences occurred across the state in 2020. According to DPS officials, data on hate crimes in 2021 are being collated and will be provided this autumn.

The 2020 figures reflect a 35.1 percent rise over the 407 instances reported in 2019.

The yearly DPS crime report indicates that “these occurrences had 632 victims, 546 perpetrators, and resulted in a total of 557 violations.” “The volume of hate crimes climbed dramatically in 2020, as did the number of victims and offenders.”

Additionally, Austin police officers charged with assault in connection with 2020 protests surrender to authorities.

Here’s an overview of what a hate crime is; how to determine whether a crime in Texas may become a hate crime; and how to report it:


What is the definition of a hate crime?

A federal hate crime, according to the United States Department of Justice, is violence or threats of violence motivated by prejudice against a person’s race, colour, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.


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The term “hate crime” refers to any violent act, such as assault, murder, arson, vandalism, or threats to perform such acts. Additionally, it may include conspiring or soliciting another individual to commit such crimes, even if the crime is never committed.

When the term “hate” is used in a hate crime statute, it does not refer to passion, anger, or general dislike. In this context, “hate” refers to prejudice against individuals or groups who share certain legally specified qualities.

—Department of Justice of the United States

If someone commits a crime against you or your property in Texas and the prosecutor establishes that the offender was motivated by prejudice against the victim’s race, colour, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender, or sexual orientation, the crime may be prosecuted as a hate crime.


What is considered a bias incident?

Bias or hate events are unintentional acts of prejudice that do not entail violence, threats, or property damage. Racial slurs, hate speech, the distribution of racist or antisemitic pamphlets, and the usage of public signs are all instances. According to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, individuals cannot be prosecuted solely for their religious beliefs.

“While people may be offended or upset by inaccurate beliefs or stereotypes, it is not illegal to express or associate with individuals who hold such views. However, the First Amendment does not protect against committing a felony solely on the basis of philosophical ideas,” according to the US Department of Justice’s hate crime information website.


The James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act of Texas

The Texas Legislature passed the current hate crime act in 2001, naming it after James Byrd Jr., a Black man who was chained to the back of a truck and hauled nearly three miles along a remote road outside Jasper in East Texas on June 7, 1998. The 49-year-old remained conscious for at least two miles before his corpse was torn to shreds.

According to Associated Press reports, prosecutors stated that Byrd was singled out for prosecution because to his race. According to authorities, his killer was openly racist and had objectionable tattoos on his body, including one of a Black man hanging from a tree with a noose around his neck. In 2019, Byrd’s 44-year-old assassin was executed at the Huntsville state penitentiary.

That same year in Wyoming, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally murdered as a result of homophobic violence.

Mylinda Byrd Washington, 66, and Louvon Byrd Harris, 61, hold up images of their brother James Byrd Jr. in Houston on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. James Byrd Jr. was the victim of one of the most heinous hate crimes in recent Texas history.

President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law in 2009. The Shepard-Byrd Act is the first federal statute that criminalises hate crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or suspected sexual orientation or gender identity.

According to the Justice Department, “the Act makes it a federal criminal to intentionally cause physical injury or to attempt to do so with a hazardous weapon on the basis of the victim’s actual or perceived race, colour, religion, or national origin.” Additionally, the Act applies to crimes committed on the basis of a person’s actual or perceived religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability if the crime involved interstate or foreign commerce or occurred within federal special maritime or territorial jurisdiction.”

Additionally, after discovering anti-Semitic leaflets on their doorsteps, Hyde Park residents band together to keep Austin inclusive.

When does a crime in Texas become a hate crime?

In Texas, the law does not recognise hate crimes as distinct and distinct criminal offences. Rather than that, the legislation permits prosecutors to “add a sentencing enhancement to offences” if they can establish that the criminal acted in response to the victim’s race, colour, national origin, religion, handicap, age, gender, or sexual orientation.

“And if the factfinder determines that it is beyond a reasonable doubt, the sentence is elevated and the gravity of the underlying offence is increased by one level,” Jennifer E. Laurin, a Wright C. Morrow Professor of Law at the University of Texas, told the American-Statesman.

“And it is a tremendous burden for the state to bear in and of itself,” Laurin said. “Because what they must demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt is not simply that the defendant held unfavourable ideas about other people, for example, but that the defendant behaved in response to those beliefs at the time the defendant acted.”

For example, the Justice Department reported this month that a 21-year-old Midland man pled guilty to three charges of perpetrating a hate crime after attacking an Asian family in March 2020 at a supermarket because he believed they were Chinese and responsible for the coronavirus outbreak.




Jose Gomez III, the man, followed the family around the store and then discovered a steak knife. Gomez assaulted and stabbed the father, two young children, aged 6 and 2, and an intervening store clerk.

“The defendant attacked an unsuspecting innocent family violently and horrifically based on their appearance and where he believed they were from,” said United States Attorney Ashley C. Hoff of the Western District of Texas in a statement. “Violence motivated by hatred has no place in our society and will not be allowed.”

Gomez faces a potential sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine for each violation.

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President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law last year in response to a dramatic spike in violence and discrimination against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The act expedites the Justice Department’s review of hate crimes and charges the department with collaborating with local law enforcement and community-based organisations to facilitate and raise awareness about hate crime reporting, including the establishment of a multilingual online hate crime reporting system.

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Sara Kim, left, and Kathy Phan, both of Austin, hold placards while listening to a speaker during the Stop Asian Hate Rally & Vigil on Saturday, April 17, 2021, at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas.


In Texas, bias motivation exists.

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, the majority of hate crime reports in the state in 2019 (64.5%) were motivated by race, ethnic origin, or ancestry. By 2020, the highest proportion has increased slightly to 67.6 percent.

At 15.5 percent, sexual orientation was the second most frequently reported bias motivation in 2019. In 2020, that figure remained constant at 15.4 percent.

Religious bias was the third most prevalent bias in 2019, accounting for 9.8 percent, and disability was the fourth most prevalent bias, accounting for 4.5 percent. In 2020, religious bias remained the third most prevalent bias, increasing to 11.3 percent, while disability remained the fourth most prevalent bias, declining to 2.8 percent.


Why is it critical to understand hate crime laws?

The Austin Chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, the Austin/Travis County Hate Crime Task Force, the Austin Police Department, the Austin Office of Civil Rights, and other local organisations have been advocating for education of the community and public safety agencies to better understand hate crimes in Texas.

Last month, the Anti-Defamation League and the Hate Crimes Task Force hosted a virtual community training to discuss how religious institutions can safeguard their places of worship against security threats. The workshop was held in response to a recent hostage situation at a Colleyville synagogue in January.

“The issue with hate crimes in general is that when an individual or group of people is targeted based on an immutable characteristic, it reverberates throughout that community.” As Lafair stated. “We recognise the toll that (hate crimes) take on our communities. That is why they must be treated with care and on a community-wide basis. We will always need to conduct outreach and education in the community.”

The city of Austin’s Civil Rights Office — established in 2020 — hosted a virtual workshop in September to address hate, discrimination, and violence directed at the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. The workshop educated residents about when hate bias becomes a hate crime and how to report it.

Carol Johnson, director of the city of Austin’s Office of Civil Rights, told the Statesman that the office’s goal is to continue offering hate crime education workshops to the city’s marginalised and underrepresented communities.

“We want to reach out to every minority group in Austin because we know that a hate crime directed at the Jewish community may look very different from a hate crime directed at the Latino or African American community,” Johnson explained. “We want to engage and learn about the unique needs of each community.”



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Where to report a bias incident or a hate crime in Austin

Officials emphasise the importance of witnesses and victims reporting hate crimes or incidents in order to collect data that can aid in resource distribution.

Residents may contact the following agencies and organisations to report a crime or a bias incident:

  • Office of Civil Rights in Austin
  • austintexas.gov/department/office-civil-rights
  • 512-974-3251
  • Department of Public Safety of Austin


If there is an emergency, dial 911.

  • austintexas.gov/department/ireportaustincom


If the incident has already occurred, the immediate danger has passed, and no one has been injured, call 311 to report a crime; in Spanish, call 512-974-5000.


The Austin Police Department’s Safe Place Initiative



If the incident has already occurred and there are no immediate dangers, call 311 or 512-974-2000.

  • General Consulate of Mexico in Austin
  • Contact 512-478-2866, extension 105, 106, 108, 109, 119, or 124.


The Anti-Defamation League and the Austin/Travis County Task Force on Hate Crimes

  • adl.org/take-action/report-an-incident
  • hctfaustin.org/resources
  • asianpacificpolicyandplanningcouncil.org/stop-aapi-hate/
  • aachi.org/report-racism.html


Natalia Contreras of the Austin American-Statesman can be reached at 512-626-4036 or ncontreras@statesman.com. Natalia ECG can be reached via Twitter and Facebook at @NataliaECG.

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