U.S. Attorney John Horn – the top federal prosecutor in North Georgia – told scores of LGBT Atlanta organizers and activists that his office is creating a special unit to better investigate civil rights complaints.

The new civil rights unit in Horn's office – which includes 46 counties in North Georgia – will include two attorneys and keep civil rights complaints from being bounced from Atlanta to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. and back, he said. The specialized practice will pursue civil complaints that involve discrimination in education, employment and housing.

"If we had been talking about 15 years ago with civil rights enforcement on the civil side, you would be talking about calling up to the Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C. We didn't have much of a local practice here." Horn said.

"We want you to call us. We want to handle that locally. It is so much more impactful and meaningful to do that locally," Horn (top photo) added.

Horn made the announcement on Thursday during a town hall meeting with LGBT organizers, activists and attorneys at the Rush Center, an LGBT meeting place that houses several gay Atlanta organizations. Horn and a handful of top attorneys and prosecutors from his office – including Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Gray, who is gay – hosted the first-of-its-kind event. 

Horn said the "listening session" was to hear concerns from LGBT groups and explain how his office enforces civil rights statutes that impact LGBT people. That could include criminal cases such as hate crimes – think the 2012 attack on Brandon White outside a convenience store – and civil cases such as discrimination in housing, education and employment – think Gwinnett College expelling a student with HIV in 2014 .

"It's incredibly important for us to have the relationships with folks in the communities, especially those in the communities we are charged to protect," Horn said. 

Horn's predecessor, U.S. Attorney Sally Yates, scored the first hate crimes convictions in Georgia under an expanded federal Matthew Shepard & James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Those came in 2013 in the case of White, a gay man attacked by four men outside a southwest Atlanta grocery store. In April, Horn's office and the U.S. Justice Department launched a joint investigation into the treatment of LGBT prisoners by the Georgia Department of Corrections.

"[The prison probe] is the very first investigation like that taking place in the United States," Horn said. 

The federal prosecutor pointed to those cases as proof that his office takes civil rights complaints from LGBT people seriously. But Horn and Gray – who prosecutes hate crime cases in the Atlanta office – also explained that hate crimes involving LGBT victims must meet a higher bar for prosecution than hate crimes based on other factors, including religion and race, thanks to the way Congress wrote the expansion of the law in 2009. That burden means hate crimes aimed at LGBT people must somehow impact interstate commerce for federal prosecutors to step in.

For LGBT people, it also means they must suffer a bodily injury or be assaulted with a weapon, Gray said. And if the assault doesn't take place when the victim is exercising a protected federal right – such as voting or seeking housing – or if it doesn't happen on federal property, it's even more difficult to prosecute. 

If an attacker swings at an LGBT victim and misses, it couldn't be federally prosecuted, Gray said. But if an attacker shoots a weapon at an LGBT victim and misses, it could be, he added.

In the White case, his assailants were prosecuted by the Fulton County District Attorney's Office. Federal authorities stepped in with hate crime charges – Georgia has no hate crime law – because White's attackers beat him with a tire manufactured outside the state, which met the interstate commerce clause, Gray said. A video the assailants made and posted online also helped meet the higher threshold for LGBT hate crime victims, he added.

"That was sort of what allowed us to walk in court and say this is a federal offense. If not, it sometimes becomes an arcane exercise to find that hook," Horn said.

But Horn said his office does not receive many reports of hate crimes, an underreporting they hope will change with more outreach and public events like the one held last week. 

"There has to be some. We get a lot of calls, but we do not get many reports of hate crimes. That's the problem. We need more reports. Police officers don't designate [hate crimes]. It's important that it reaches us," he said.

"Maybe we can't prosecute it but we want to hear about it," Horn said, adding that the incidents might make a pattern that can lead to federal involvement – such as the ongoing investigation into the treatment of LGBT prisoners in Georgia prisons.

'That is unacceptable'

 

Trans activists – including Dee Dee Chamblee (second photo), the executive director of LaGender – pushed Horn about police misconduct. Chamblee pointed to a survey released in March from Solutions Not Punishment that detailed reports from transgender people about harassment, unwanted sexual contact and insensitivity by Atlanta police officers. On Thursday, the audience included Atlanta Police Deputy Chief Erika Shields and the agency's two LGBT liaisons.

Chamblee challenged Horn's assertion that Atlanta police policy "is encompassing and welcoming to the LGBT community."

"It's not based on hard data. It's not based on hard statistics. It's based on my interactions with APD and how they train their offices," Horn said. "If you have instances of behavior by police that's a violation of a right we are able to protect, we want to hear about it."

Horn also said he wants to review SNaP Co's report, Trans Voices on Police Abuse and Profiling in Atlanta.

"It's a one-sided deal with information you're getting," Chamblee said.

Simone Bell, a lesbian former lawmaker who is now Lambda Legal's regional director in Atlanta, said the gay legal organization regularly receives calls from across the country from LGBT crime victims complaining of being assaulted and robbed outside a gay bar but that federal prosecutors won't step in with hate crime charges.

Gray said prosecutors are wary of cases that might not meet the added obstacles in the hate crimes law for LGBT victims. 

"The department is cautious about litigating a case that may result in a bad opinion at the circuit level," Gray said. 

But Horn added that if complaints are brought to his office, they can evaluate the case to see if it can be pursued under federal law.

"Our office doesn't have a problem in being aggressive with some of these prosecutions," he said.

Elizabeth Anderson, Charis Circle's executive director, and Tara Borelli, a senior attorney in Lambda Legal's Atlanta office, questioned Horn about sex discrimination and the mistreatment of transgender students in public schools. In May, the Obama administration proposed guidelines calling for schools to allow trans students to use bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity. The guidelines inflamed religious conservatives and ignited a new round of potty wars in Georgia. 

"We’ve been extraordinarily distressed by the number of schools saying openly they do not have any intention of treating transgender students equally. That is unacceptable," Borelli said.

Horn said prosecutors are awaiting the outcome of a federal lawsuit challenging an anti-LGBT law in North Carolina that bans transgender people from using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

"The landscape is unsettled on the transgender issues. There isn’t a definitive court ruling," he said.

Contact the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Georgia here.