Tree of Life survivors applaud proposed hate crime bills |
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Bob Bauder

Several survivors of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue lauded state lawmakers on Thursday for a package of proposed bills designed to enhance Pennsylvania hate crimes statutes.

State Reps. Dan Frankel of Squirrel Hill and Ed Gainey of Lincoln-Lemington and Sen. Jay Costa of Forest Hills, standing outside the shuttered synagogue, said they plan to introduce companion legislation in the House and Senate in coming weeks. All are Democrats.

Andrea Wedner, 62, of Squirrel Hill, who was wounded during the attack, and whose mother, Rose Mallinger, was killed, said the legislation was overdue.

“It feels like there is finally action being taken,” she said. “It’s not being ignored. I think this really affected everybody, and they’re not going to take it anymore. Enough is enough.”

Eleven worshipers died in the Oct. 27 attack. Robert Bowers, of Baldwin, is charged in connection with the killings. Authorities say he expressed hatred of Jews.

Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who survived the rampage, said he was saddened by the need for such legislation.

“While I’m appreciative that Rep. Frankel and our legislature want to take action on this, it’s also a sad moment that we have to create laws because people just can’t work, live and play together,” Myers said. “I hope for the day where we don’t need these types of laws.”

The bills would:

  • Permit the Pennsylvania attorney general to investigate crimes of discrimination and ethnic intimidation.
  • Require those convicted of hate crimes as a condition of their probation or parole to perform community services or attend diversity training.
  • Require the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission to train new police officers in identifying, investigating and reporting ethnic intimidation crimes.
  • Permit victims to sue those convicted of hate crimes.
  • Require colleges and universities to offer online and anonymous reporting procedures for hate crimes.
  • Require the state attorney general to create a hate crimes unit and maintain a data base of hate groups across the state. The database would be accessible only by law enforcement agencies.

Frankel said several dozen House members, including Republicans, have signed on as co-sponsors and the legislation has a good chance of passage.

“We stand here today on sacred ground,” Frankel said. “Eleven lives were cut short and countless others have been forever changed. These bills will expand and update our outdated laws so they can protect LGBTQ and disabled people, increase civil and criminal penalties for hate crimes, provide education for those who have been convicted of these crimes and improve the data for tracking hate crimes and hate criminals.”

At least one onlooker wasn’t convinced.

“I like the package, but I’m very pessimistic about its effect,” said Barry Werber, 77, of Stanton Heights, who survived the shooting by hiding in a storage closet. “You are going to have people attacking certain parts of it because of the First Amendment. You’re going to have a battle the same way you have over the Second Amendment.”

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