Last month, Eric Treene, a career prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice, found himself facing intense questioning.
Treene, the department’s special counsel on religious discrimination, was testifying on religious hate crimes before a Senate panel when Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota quizzed him about what he saw as mixed messages coming from the Trump administration.
During a tense five-minute exchange, Franken, an unabashed Trump critic, repeatedly posed a variation of this question: What “message” does the presence of controversial Trump strategist Stephen Bannon in the White House send to “those who commit hate crimes?”
“The message that I feel strongest as a prosecutor and an attorney for the Department of Justice is the consistent message that I’ve gotten from the attorney general [Jeff Sessions] to pursue hate crimes, to continue doing the work we’re doing,” Treene said.
“That’s not the question I asked,” Franken shot back as he continued to grill Treene about Bannon, a former editor of the right-wing website Breitbart News, seen by some critics as a purveyor of hate speech.
No policy change seen
Treene sidestepped the question, maintaining that there has been no change in the Department of Justice’s policy on prosecuting hate crimes, despite the change of administration.
The exchange illustrated the degree to which Trump’s appointment of controversial figures such as Bannon and Sessions to senior positions and his own campaign statements about Muslims and other minorities have shaped views of his administration’s stance on hate crimes and discrimination.
“With [Sessions’] history, you have to raise questions about the department’s true and honest pursual of hate crime prosecutions when it seems to run counter in a lot of ways to what the administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have said in the past,” said Ryan Lenz, a senior investigative writer with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Justice Department officials say controversial statements and actions by Sessions have not impeded their efforts to pursue cases involving hate crimes and civil rights.
Career officials’ role
“The decisions whether to charge a case are made by career officials,” said a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “All of those decisions — what cases to charge, what cases to open, what cases to close — are made by the same career employees who were here six months ago.”
Under former President Barack Obama, the Justice Department made civil rights a law enforcement priority, carrying out nearly two dozen investigations of police departments accused of excessive force and racial profiling, and charging more than 250 individuals with hate crimes during his first seven years in office.
The Trump administration has prioritized fighting violent crime and enforcing immigration laws. And Sessions has set out to undo a series of Obama-era Justice Department policies that have irked critics, from pausing reforms imposed on police departments accused of civil rights violations to easing restrictions on mandatory minimum sentences.
Sessions says these measures are key to boosting law enforcement morale and public safety, but advocates say they’re a rollback of civil rights.
“All the signals from the Justice Department say that they’re backing off,” said Ngozi Ndulue, director of criminal justice for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.
Justice officials say Sessions has directed the Civil Rights Division to pursue hate crimes as part of the attorney general’s campaign against violent crime. Treene said he’s been encouraged to “vigorously” pursue cases on behalf of Muslims and others. And the senior government official said the department has opened new hate crime investigations and “a number of police shooting and police misconduct cases” since January 20, when Trump was inaugurated.
Number of cases ‘on par’
According to a VOA review, the Justice Department has announced 18 hate crime cases, including four new ones, and 26 civil rights cases, including four new ones, since Trump took office.
The number of new hate crime cases appears to be on par with the number in previous years.
“If you look at our stats, we probably charge 20 cases a year, maybe one or two a month,” the official said.
Critics like Lenz said the Justice Department has not done enough to investigate and prosecute rising hate crimes since the election. Officials say they investigate every case, and that any slowdown since January is to be expected as personnel turn over.
“It has nothing to do with priorities,” the official said.
Criminologist Brian Levin of California State University-San Bernardino said that historically, a change of administration has led to a change in law enforcement priorities, affecting the level of investigations, staffing and prosecution of civil rights cases carried out by the Department of Justice.
“We saw prosecutions decline under President [George W.] Bush and increase under President Obama, for example, although there is usually a lag in data, as some early cases in an administration that were prosecuted were actually opened under a previous administration,” Levin said.