Updated, 5:30 p.m.: This story was updated with additional information from the Attorney General’s Office.
Democratic elected officials from across Pennsylvania, including Attorney General Josh Shapiro, gathered in Harrisburg’s Allison Hill Thursday to hear, up close and personal, what it’s like when someone encounters harassment or hate for their race or religion.
The event, hosted by the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg, was aimed at making sure that hate and bias aren’t swept under the rug, Chief Executive Officer Mary Quinn said.
“We know that there is no peace without justice for everyone,” Quinn said. “When we condone some aggression or violence against marginalized populations were actually opening the door and allowing it to happen to everyone.”
Shapiro said he hoped the event would help show the community that law enforcement was willing to listen to their concerns.
“I fundamentally believe hate speech begets hate crimes,” Shapiro said. “And unless we deal it at this level, unless we help people understand the outlets they have with law enforcement, unless we in law enforcement better understand what happens in the community, what starts as a trickle on a social media platform our out in a town square can easily escalate into real violence.”
According to Shapiro spokesperson Joe Grace, the event included one attendee describing their son being racially profiled in their own neighborhood while walking to a friends.
He was asked to show ID, and then frisked by police before he was let go. The incident led him to get anxious while conducting every-day activities, according to Grace’s account.
Another woman, who is African American, described leaving a job at a community center after she was harassed, threatened, and called racist names at work.
The informal hearing also included Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin, and Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny. Frankel has been a vocal supporter of passing new and expanded hate crime laws for the past few years.
The push has only seemed more urgent following the anti-Semitic terrorist attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in his Pittsburgh district last year that killed 11 people.
The veteran lawmaker said he will introduce legislation to increase penalties, and mandate rehabilitation training, for hate crime perpetrators. He also is preparing language to increase police training around hate crime reporting and create a way for college students to anonymously report incidents to college administrators.
“We’re very hopeful we can get bipartisan support,” Frankel said.
Other legislation in the package also includes a proposal by Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, for the Attorney General’s Office to create a specialized hate crime database and task force to investigate crimes that local police will not. There is also a proposal, with bipartisan backing, to expand state hate crime laws to include disabled and LGBTQ people.
Frankel said it’s important to his Squirrel Hill community, targeted last fall, to take action on these bills and to expand the reach of state law to cover other marginalized communities.
Shapiro, a former lawmaker, said he backed some of the proposals when he represented a portion of Montgomery in the state House, and that backing continued now as the state’s chief law enforcement official.
“We were behind the times a decade ago in Pennsylvania, I think we’re really behind the times” now, Shapiro said.