May 31 2017 04:25 PM

Law enforcement, civil rights leaders work on response to antigay bias crimes

170524wirth1


    The murder of Kevin Wirth last week has the earmarks of an antigay bias killing, civil rights experts said.

    Wirth, 27, was found in his home in the 1100 block of Kalamazoo Street shortly before 7 a.m. on May 21. Police who were called to the home to respond to a burglar alarm,found the back door open. Wirth had been stabbed 22 times, according a court transcript. The only thing taken from the home was Wirth’s cellphone. Police have charged Larkin Henry Neely Jr., 30, of Detroit, with murder and armed robbery.

    The excessive brutality of the murder combined with the limited removal of belongings are key indicators that bias played a role in his murder, said Heidi Budaj, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League.

    “In a crime where a gay man is targeted and there was no prior relationship that we can determine and where valuables were left behind, it would be hard to rule out unequivocally a bias motivation,” Budaj said.

    A bias crime, also called a hate crime, is one in which a victim’s identity — race, religion, gender, gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, etc. — is the basis for targeting. The Michigan State Police reported 399 bias incidents in 2015, the last period for which reporting was available. Of those, 12 percent were perpetrated against someone based on their sexual orientation. Bias, according to the department, is determined by “the motivation of the offenders.”

    Police said the motivation for the murder remains unclear.

    “We’re still investigating,” said Lansing Police Chief Michael Yankowski. “This is still an active open investigation, and we just don’t have that motivation yet.”

    According to a court transcript, Lansing Police believe Neely met Wirth at the Nuthouse, a downtown Michigan Avenue bar, on Saturday, the night before the murder. They each left about 11 p.m. Sometime around 1 a.m. they exchanged text messages and Neely ended up at Wirth’s home.

    As Wirth faced his attacker, he frantically texted and posted messages on Facebook expressing alarm that he was going to be murdered.

    Wirth had also taken a photograph of his attacker on Saturday night, shortly after meeting him, and sent it to his friend Christin Harris.

    Neely, who was arrested on May 22, declined to speak to detectives after his arrest.

    Neely was unaccounted for until about midnight May 22. That didn’t stop Lansing Police Capt. Darin Southworth from issuing a press release.

    “We do not believe this to be a random act or that a greater public safety concern exists,” the release stated.

    That move concerned both Budaj and Emily Dievendorf, head of the Lansing Association for Human Rights, a local LGBTQ advocacy group.

    Budaj said in situation like this, where a community is feeling “unsafe,” it is essential to have “unofficial” communications between the LGBT community and law enforcement.

    “I can’t promise that acknowledging that bias might have been a factor that would have eased the anxiety,” said Dievendorf of the LGBT community response in the hours after the murder was discovered. “But I can promise that we would have been able to then communicate to the community the many ways we would be able to better protect ourselves.”

    She continued, “But at the very least we would then be more prepared to safeguard against potential bias or potential violence.”

    Top law enforcement officials are hearing that concern.

    Friday, Yankowski told City Pulse he would begin serving as the Lansing Police liaison for the LGBT community. The former liaison officer, Det. Michelle Bryant, has been on medical leave for two years. Yaknowski said he was unable to locate an officer to fill that role.

    His statement is garnering praise. Dievendorf called the move “an incredible statement of commitment” and a “great first step.” Budaj said the move was “powerful” because it sends a message to the LPD ranks and surrounding jurisdictions that Lansing police take the safety of the LGBT community seriously.

    “This is somebody who is in the top top top leadership position, which will not only give the message symbolically that this is important, but he gets to set the tone for how crimes are investigated and what kind of training his officers have,” Budaj said. “And I cannot even express strongly enough how wonderful of an opportunity this is for both the Lansing police department and for the LGBT community to come together.”

    Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon said she is working with her staff to review and improve internal reporting information on crimes, particularly those with bias.

    Dievendorf said while communication with the police is important, the community in cooperation with law enforcement also needs to have a rapid response team to activate in the event of suspected or proven bias crimes.

    Siemon said she supports that move. “I am excited to be a part of what Ms.

    Dievendorf referred to as Rapid Response collaborative law enforcement/prosecutor approach and look forward to working together on this effort,” she wrote.

    Siemon said she is also supportive of increased training on responding to and prosecuting bias-related crimes.

    “We plan to provide training as soon as practicable,” Siemon wrote in an email.

    That training, she noted, would not just focus on the LGBT community. She said it had to focus on all vulnerable populations.

    “We’ve seen how hate speech has re-entered the mainstream of American society — from the local level all the way up to the White House,” Siemon said. “Our nation’s political leadership unfortunately is negatively impacting the levels of both actual violence and perceived threat of violence in our local cities and towns. This heightened fear especially impacts some of our most vulnerable community members, including immigrants/New Americans, ethnic and religious minorities, and our LGBTQ population. These new circumstances call for an improved, rapid response on behalf of police, prosecutors, victim advocates, and the community at large.”

    Subscribe to Our Newsletter