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A look at hate crimes in Denver and why they're so hard to prosecute

More than 200 bias-motivated incidents were reported to Denver police from 2011 to 2017, according to data gathered by ProPublica's Documenting Hate project.

DENVER — Despite the alleged hate crime hoax involving "Empire" Actor Jussie Smollett, actual hate crimes are happening around the country, and the Denver District Attorney's office says their team looks at two to three reports of potential hate incidents every week. 

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“They affect the entire community and they terrify a community," Denver Assistant District Attorney Ryan Brackley said. 

Data from the nonprofit investigative newsroom ProPublica found from 2011 to 2017, people reported 246 hate incidents to Denver Police. 

Not every one represents a criminal act, but even when police find evidence of a bias-motivated crime, there's not always enough of it for the district attorney to prosecute. 

More than 100 of the cases gathered by ProPublica were classified as "inactive" on the police reports. According to a DPD spokesperson, that means the case is being set aside without it going cold. Police could be waiting for lab analysis or more witnesses to come forward. 

When a case is accepted, Brackley says it can be hard to prosecute hate. 

“In no other crime that we prosecute in the criminal justice system do we have to prove someone’s motive, prove why someone did something," he said. "In bias-motivated crimes, we have to prove what was going through someone’s mind when they started the activity." 

ProPublica also gathered data for specifically anti-black incidents in Denver from January 2016 to August 2018. 

The crimes ranged from criminal mischief to aggravated assault, often with victims reporting racial slurs yelled at them or written to them. But only three of the suspects had an additional bias-motivated charge brought against them. 

“It’s not often complicated to prove the underlying criminal behavior," said Brackley. "But to prove what was going through someone’s mind when they started that behavior is complicated."

In Bernabe Colindres' case, police say he slashed his neighbors tires and carved n***** into the hood of their car. His bias-motivated charge was dismissed by the DA, but he was convicted on a criminal mischief charge. 

“We want to be sure to come away from this case with a conviction so that someone is held responsible," Brackley said. "Sometimes it makes a lot of sense to do that in a way where we don’t come away with that bias-motivated crime." 

Because these cases are complicated, in 2017, the Denver DA's office formed a specialized team of seven attorneys to investigate bias-motivated incidents.

Have you or someone you know witnessed or been a victim of a hate incident? ProPublica's project, Documenting Hate, wants to know. Tell your story here.

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