Preventing Prejudice: Hate crime training in RI

This month I spoke with Jennifer Stevens of the RI Commission on Prejudice and Bias, who was kind enough to share how they are working hand-in-hand with law enforcement and members of the general public to create a safer community for all.

Richard Laliberte (Motif): Tell our readers about the RI Commission on Prejudice and Bias. What is the overall history and your goals?


Jennifer Stevens: Sure, Rich. I appreciate you and Motif taking an interest. The RI Commission on Prejudice and Bias (RICPB) was created by law in 1981 to study and report on prejudice and hatred in RI, and to revise related laws. The 17 commissioners include community leaders, state legislators, law enforcement officers, and staff from the Attorney General’s Office. We’ve offered police training on hate crimes for many years, and have grown to offer more community-based training and events.

RL: Tell us specifically about the hate crime training that you provide. What does it entail?

JS: All police recruits in RI are mandated to receive hate crime training at the academy level — that’s the State, Providence, and Municipal police academies, and many campus and university police officers. The training typically starts with a member of the State Police giving an overview of fair and unbiased policing practices. A prosecutor from the AG’s office will lead the majority of the presentation, which begins with a history of civil rights laws and bigotry in the US and RI. Over several hours, recruits are trained to identify hate crimes, which are crimes motivated by the perpetrator’s bigotry or bias against a protected trait, like race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability. They’re also trained to identify bias incidents, or “awful but lawful” acts clearly motivated by prejudice, often protected as free speech.

We discuss what motivates these crimes and incidents, tips on investigating them, how they impact entire communities, why they are vastly underreported, and what can be done to prevent them. The training includes videos about real-life hate crimes, and hypothetical and real-life scenarios are discussed in groups as recruits practice how to investigate.

In between sections, we present multiple guest speakers from organizations like the Refugee Dream Center and TGI Network (an organization that protects the rights of trans, gender-fluid, and intersex individuals), who speak about their lived experience with hate crimes and bias incidents. They graciously tell their stories and allow recruits to ask any questions that may help them understand the impact of these crimes or biases, and how to helpfully interact with these populations.

RL: What police departments have you worked with?

JS: Every police department in the state now has a designated, specially trained Hate Crimes and Civil Rights Liaison Officer who is a resource for their department, and a direct connection to the RI Attorney General’s Civil Rights Team, which AG [Peter] Neronha established in 2020. As far as we know, RI may be the only state in the country that has 100% participation in such an initiative. Any police department that would like to receive hate crime training can receive it, free of charge. A major annual training is open to all law enforcement on June 7 at Rhode Island College.

RL: What is the general reception from law enforcement?

JS: The feedback from our evaluations is overwhelmingly positive, especially for how well prepared the team is and how interesting the guest speakers are. We find the recruits want to interact and ask really thoughtful questions. We’re all constantly incorporating feedback to improve the training. The presenters work really hard.

RL: How do you work with the general public and victims of hate crimes?

JS: The RI Commission on Prejudice and Bias, Center for Southeast Asians, Nonviolence Institute, Youth Pride Inc., and Jewish Alliance were all recently named by the AG as subrecipients of a Bureau of Justice Assistance — Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes grant. Our organizations are now leading and participating in community education events to help the public understand how to identify hate crimes and bias incidents, how they affect entire communities, the importance of reporting, and how to prevent them. We’ve done this through film screenings, discussions, print materials, and forging partnerships with organizations like the Providence Human Relations Commission to help spread the message to communities most impacted by hate violence.

To support victims, the RICPB offers an alternate reporting line: (401) 648-9498, where it’s possible to report anonymously and be directed to resources. We also provide training to victims’ rights advocates at Day One.

RL: Have you seen benefits to the program already? And how do you plan on expanding?

JS: As I’ve connected with other local community groups and national organizations, spoken with victims who have lost immediate family members to hate violence, and heard stories about reformed haters, I’m beginning to see real possibilities to heal. When the Shiloh Gospel Temple, a predominantly Black church in North Providence, experienced an arson attack in February, it was heartening to march for peace alongside Shiloh congregants, Jewish community leaders, Nonviolence Institute staff, and law enforcement.

The RI Commission on Prejudice and Bias’ expansion into community education work is the most significant leap we’ve taken in a long time. They are beginning to form a Rapid Response Team, which would activate in the immediate aftermath of hate crimes. For more info about the RI Commission on Prejudice and Bias visit, email, or call (401) 648-9498.