Correction: The original story missreported the towns that Rural Oklahoma Pride has held LGBTQ celebrations. It has been corrected.
There’s still a burn mark on the floor of the Donut Hole in Tulsa more than a year after Coby Dale Green threw a Molotov cocktail into the shop.
Store owner Sarah Swain hosted an exhibit by a local artist where drag performers handed out donuts behind the counter in October 2022. Weeks later, Green shattered the windows and threw the explosive device inside the store, leaving anti-LGBTQ fliers taped to the door of a neighboring business. Federal authorities didn’t arrest him for more than six months.
During that time, Green attended a drag brunch at another Tulsa business and allegedly started yelling slurs during the performance. The business owner declined an interview but claimed in court documents Green stalked and harassed her, and a judge issued a protective order against him. The Frontier isn’t identifying the business owner because she fears more harassment.
For months before Green’s arrest, Swain kept a can of bear mace and a gun with her. She mapped out escape routes as she worked late nights preparing donuts for the mornings. And she scanned every line of customers for anyone who even slightly resembled Green.
Green pleaded guilty to malicious use of explosives and was sentenced in December to serve five years in federal prison and another three years of probation. His sentence includes an enhancement for committing a hate crime.
Swain’s case didn’t fit the criteria to be prosecuted under a federal hate crimes statute. And while 22 other states recognize incidents based on gender and sexual orientation as hate crimes, which can carry harsher penalties, Oklahoma law still doesn’t. Green’s attorneys declined to comment.
Green also wasn’t charged under Tulsa’s hate crimes ordinance, which includes penalties of up to $1,000, six months in jail or both. Tulsa is one of just a few cities in the state that can prosecute hate crimes based on gender and sexual orientation because of a local law enacted in September 2020 that covers more protected classes than state law. But three years later, the only arrest Tulsa police have made under the ordinance was for malicious harassment based on race in October 2021. The charge was later dismissed.
Swain said she’s thankful she no longer has to worry about Green returning to her business unexpectedly or harming the community more.
“I feel like I didn’t ever turn off mentally until they came in here and told me they arrested him that morning,” Swain said.
She’s concerned that a lack of protection in state law and a narrow federal law mean the perpetrators of similar crimes could get lesser sentences.
Eight local law enforcement agencies told The Frontier they still investigate those incidents as potential hate crimes, even if the state can’t prosecute them that way. But some experts believe gaps in the law prevent incidents based on gender or sexual orientation from being reported. Some LGBTQ community members also don’t report incidents because of mistrust for law enforcement. Oklahoma is one of 32 states without a requirement in statute that police go through training on investigating hate crimes and working with victims.
Hate crime cases based on gender and sexual orientation can fall to federal authorities, though the applicable law only covers specific cases and the bar for prosecution is high. Prosecutors rely partly on local law enforcement to refer incidents, said Robert Troester, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma. But Troester said he believes many crimes go unreported because of gaps in state law.
Out of 63 hate crimes reported in Oklahoma in 2022, only 12 were based on sexual orientation, according to data from local law enforcement collected by the FBI. There were just two crimes based on gender identity reported and none based on gender that year.
“I would be very surprised if many people in the state would report a hate crime if they thought it was based on orientation because it’s not under state law,” Troester said.
Local law enforcement are required to report potential hate crimes through a system that the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation maintains. But state statute does not require police departments to categorize incidents based on gender and sexual orientation as hate crimes or to report them to the State Bureau of Investigation as such.
Underreporting and a high bar for prosecutors
The Frontier surveyed the state’s 30 largest police and sheriff’s departments on how they identify, report and investigate potential hate crimes. Officials for the eight departments that responded said they go beyond state law to report gender or sexual orientation-related hate crimes to the State Bureau of Investigation.
Representatives from five agencies said they believe crime in their communities is underreported. Two departments mentioned outreach to minority groups to encourage reporting.
Reports of potential hate crimes from local law enforcement are also sent to the FBI. The FBI transitioned to the National Incident-Based Reporting System in 2021, which allows for more detailed data collection. All 461 departments in Oklahoma are now using the new system.
The evidence that investigators gather is passed onto federal authorities, who can prosecute crimes based on gender and sexual orientation under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, named after a gay man who was attacked by two men and left to die, and a Black man who was killed by white supremacists.
But the federal law only applies when a person causes or attempts to cause bodily harm in specific situations, like if the crime affects interstate or foreign commerce. Any prosecution requires certification from the U.S. Attorney General or a designee that the state where the crime occurred doesn’t have jurisdiction over the case, and that the federal government’s involvement is in the public interest.
The only hate crime the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma’s office has prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was the June 2019 assault of a Black man outside of a bar in Shawnee. The incident wasn’t sent to their office as a hate crime, which shows the importance of training officers on identifying those incidents, said Julia Barry, Western District civil rights coordinator.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics conducts a national survey on crime victimization each year that some experts use as a tool to measure underreporting to police. Over the past five years, crimes based on sexual orientation have been reported to the FBI more often than crimes based on gender or gender identity.
The FBI has separate bias categories for gender and gender identity, but the National Crime Victimization Survey doesn’t. About 24% of violent incidents reported in the National Crime Victimization Survey from 2015 to 2019 were believed to be based on gender. According to FBI data for that same time period, an average of about 2% of reported crimes nationwide were based on gender identity, and an average of about 0.6% were based on gender.
Meredith Worthen, a sociology professor at the University of Oklahoma who studies LGBTQ issues, said it’s impossible to get completely accurate data for any type of victimization. Experts refer to this issue as the “dark figure of crime.” But there are additional safety and privacy concerns for many LGBTQ people, Worthen said.
Some agencies boost LGBTQ outreach
The group Rural Oklahoma Pride has organized LGBTQ celebrations in Oklahoma towns over the past two years, including in Ada and Lawton. Co-founders Jacob Jeffery and Bryan Paddack said their group has received threats through social media in some towns. They told local law enforcement about the threats in some instances and police responded with increased security at events, Jeffery said.
There are a variety of reasons why victims might choose not to interact with police to report a crime. Jeffery said some LGBTQ community members might worry that officers could ask unwanted or insensitive questions about their gender or sexual orientation, among other concerns.
The Tulsa Police Department has stepped up outreach efforts to the community. As Tulsa’s LGBTQ Community Liaison Officer, Thomas Bell said his job is focused on building trust. He teaches rookies in the department’s academy on how to refer to people with the appropriate genders and pronouns.
The Tulsa Police Department created the position in 2017, after acknowledging that both historical events like the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City and a lack of communication locally had led to a tense relationship between LGBTQ community members and police. Bell said it’s helpful for the agency to have a specific officer that residents know they can come to with issues. Many of the calls he gets are from community members asking if they should report an incident to police or requesting follow ups on cases like the targeting of the Donut Hole. He also sometimes receives questions from officers about ways to build trust with victims and assure them they’re taking an investigation seriously.
“I hope that we’re so successful in what we’re doing that I’m told someday, ‘Yeah, we don’t really need a liaison anymore because they’re good with us.’ And they don’t have any fear when they call us for a report, and they reach out to us for help when they need it,” Bell said.
No training requirements in state law
Eighteen states require training for law enforcement on how to identify and investigate hate crimes. Of those, 13 explicitly include training to investigate crimes based on gender and sexual orientation.
But in Oklahoma, the amount and specific focuses of hate crime-related training are up to the discretion of individual law enforcement agencies. The Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training requires police academies across the state to include training on civil rights, but they aren’t required to cover the federal hate crimes statute.
The eight respondents to The Frontier survey said their officers receive training on how to identify and investigate hate crimes, either through the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training basic academy or continuing education training, or their own police academy and additional instruction. But some described their training as cultural awareness or diversity, racial intelligence or community engagement.
A spokesperson for the Broken Arrow Police Department said police recruits take an eight-hour class on cultural awareness and racial intelligence that includes legal definitions for different crimes and ways to document evidence of potential hate crimes in incident reports. The Edmond Police Department offers civil rights and hate crime training through its academy and continuing education classes, a spokesperson said. And a spokesperson for the Norman Police Department said its academy includes an 8-hour training block on how to identify and investigate potential hate crimes, and another 8-hour block on cultural diversity, including gender and sexual orientation.
The federal government has launched several initiatives, including one created in 2021 to help local agencies do education and outreach on hate crimes, and another established in 2022 creating state-run hotlines to encourage hate crime reporting. But no agencies in Oklahoma received that funding for the 2023 fiscal year.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation did in-person training for law enforcement across the country for a few years, focusing on helping officers identify and report bias crimes, and interact with victims respectfully. But founder Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, said no agencies in Oklahoma ever asked her team to visit.
All three U.S. Attorneys’ offices in Oklahoma train local police officers on the federal hate crimes statutes and emphasize that federal prosecutors have a path for prosecuting some bias crimes that state agencies lack. A representative from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Oklahoma in Muskogee provides civil rights training to many new officers attending the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training police academy in Ada. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the training goes beyond state standards by also covering the federal hate crimes statutes and methods for working with victims.
The Western District’s office works with the Oklahoma City FBI field office to try to reach as many law enforcement agencies in their area as possible, but they can’t reach all of them. They prioritize departments where they have existing relationships, as well as areas with either disproportionately high reports of hate crimes or signs of underreporting, said Adam Berry, an FBI special agent.
Full-time officers in Oklahoma are required to complete 25 hours of continuing education training a year, including two hours on mental health issues.The Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training lists 16 classes with “hate crime” in the title that can be used for continuing education credit, but Preston Draper, the agency’s general counsel, said other training could also include information on hate crimes. He also said he thinks in-depth hate crime instruction would help many officers, but they generally benefit from fewer mandated courses, which allows them to receive more variety in their training.
In Minnesota, the state legislature changed the law in 2023 to require that every three years, police officers receive an hour of training on hate crimes, including crimes based on gender and sexual orientation. The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, which covers the state capital St. Paul, hosted a training focused on the LGBTQ community that included identifying and reporting bias crimes, and building trust with victims by using correct names and pronouns. Local law enforcement, victims’ advocates and prosecutors attended the training, which was funded using federal Bureau of Justice Assistance money.
“Minnesota has a reputation for having a real progressive, sort of safe environment for LGBTQ folks and others,” said assistant county attorney Mark Haase, who organized the training. “But that doesn’t always translate to how people are actually treated by police or by others.”
Kelley Blair, the executive director of the Diversity Center of Oklahoma, an LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit, said they believe mandatory training for officers on handling hate crime cases would be helpful to build trust with victims and improve data collection. Having officers go through that curriculum regularly is also important as new officers join and society’s understanding of LGBTQ people evolves, they said.
“We have our own culture, too,” Blair said. “And so if there are people that respect that, it would make a big difference in how people perceive them and trust them.”