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Advocacy groups: Montana hate crime laws not up-to-date

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MISSOULA, Mont. - Missoula police are continuing to ask for the public's help to identify two suspects involved in a possible hate crime at a restaurant on the 3000-block of North Reserve Street.

Police say the pair approached an African-American man who was sitting at the restaurant filling out paperwork and began saying racial slurs to him. Police say employees and bystanders intervened and the altercation moved to the parking lot. That's when police say the suspects threatened the victim with a knife.

Police say the suspects had tattoos of symbols associated with white supremacy groups. Due to the nature of the racial slurs and tattoos, police say the altercation was likely racially motivated.

"In this particular case there was no reason for this (type of crime) to happen," said Detective Mitchell Lang, with the Missoula Police Department. He is the lead investigator on the case. "There were symbols associated (with those groups), so we take that information as best as we can based on their actions and what kind of indication were seeing in these tattoos, and that gives us a direction to follow up on."

NBC Montana wanted to know how police investigate racially motivated crimes.

Lang said when they investigate those cases, "We try to take in the totality of everything that happened. It's important to look at everything as a whole. We don't take sides immediately, but we take a look at the facts of the case."

He says police are searching for the suspects to learn their side of what happened.

Lang says MPD reports crime statistics to the Montana Board of Crime Control. The MBCC catalogs the number of hate crimes in the state on an annual basis. The 2015 report indicates 14 hate crimes in Montana, 37 in 2014 and 44 in 2013.

State advocacy groups say Montana's hate crime laws are not as up-to-date as they could be.

Montana Human Rights Network co-director Rachel Carroll Rivas says the Montana Human Rights Act has not been updated since 2007.

Carroll Rivas says it's time for a change. She says prosecuting hate crimes is particularly difficult in Montana when crimes regarding sexual orientation are involved. Carroll Rivas says the state's discrimination laws don't protect crimes against the LGBTQ community.

A map from the Movement Advancement Project indicates Montana is one of 15 states that do not include sexual orientation in their discrimination laws.

"Unfortunately there hasn't been the appetite for that among a lot of legislatures (to change that)," Carroll Rivas added. "I think in terms of updating, yes, absolutely we need to look at making sure our hate crime laws include sexual orientation and gender identity as a the protected class, which they don't currently."

She hopes updated laws could help victims find justice. Lang hopes they could help make sense of racially motivated crimes.

"I think a lot of times when crimes happen to people the victims try to make sense of why this has happened," he said. "Sometimes they blame themselves. They try to make sense of a situation that doesn't have a whole lot of sense to be made."

You can read Montana's discrimination, assault and criminal defamation laws here.

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