WASHINGTON — Federal authorities are stepping up enforcement against hate crimes, filing charges in a racially motivated cross-burning and announcing the sentencing this week of a Massachusetts man for burning a predominantly African-American church the morning after President Barack Obama's election.
Benjamin Haskell, 24, was sentenced Monday to nine years in prison for his role in torching the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Mass. The Nov. 5, 2008, arson nearly destroyed the building, and Haskell admitted in court documents that the crime was motivated by anger over Obama's election.
In Arkansas, three men were indicted on charges of burning a cross in the yard of a black resident of a rural area, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.
Although the cases are not connected, they reflect heightened federal enforcement against hate crimes and other civil rights violations, a top priority of the Obama administration, officials said Wednesday.
"It's extremely important," said Cynthia Deitle, unit chief for the FBI's civil rights program. "We are here to help people who have been the victim of an atrocious crime, whether it's police brutality or a church arson. If we don't do it, there's no one else who will."
The FBI was given an additional $8 million by Congress last year for civil rights enforcement. FBI data show that the number of hate crimes has remained relatively stable for the past decade. In 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 7,783 hate crime incidents were reported nationwide.