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19-Year-Old Protester Stomped On A 'Back The Blue' Sign. She Faces Hate Crime Charges

A person holds a "Back the Blue" sign in support of police during a 2020 rally in front of Seattle City Hall.
Ted S. Warren
A person holds a "Back the Blue" sign in support of police during a 2020 rally in front of Seattle City Hall.

A Utah hate crime case is drawing national attention after local authorities charged a young woman with a hate crime over allegedly defacing a "Back the Blue" sign in front of a sheriff's deputy.

Utah is one of at least five states — along with Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Hampshire — that list law enforcement officers, along with race and gender, in their hate crime laws' protected categories, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Lauren Gibson, 19, is accused of stomping on a "Back the Blue" sign while "smirking in an intimidating manner" at a Garfield County sheriff's deputy. The deputy had pulled over a group of vehicles for speeding, the sheriff's office says.

"The officer wrote in court documents the incident should be treated as a hate crime because it was an 'attempt to intimidate law enforcement,' " as NPR member station KUER reported.

Garfield County Attorney Barry Huntington told NPR that the case is moving forward, although he wasn't certain as of Thursday morning whether a court date has been set. Gibson has retained an attorney, he said.

"We haven't spoken yet," Huntington added after being asked whether the case might be resolved without a trial.

The local sheriff is defending the charges

Sheriff James D. Perkins is defending the charges against Gibson, saying in a written statement, "We are greatly disturbed by the hatred shown to law enforcement officers for no apparent reason."

Alleging that the young woman was "extremely aggressive and violent" toward the deputy, Perkins said, "Ms. Gibson caused a public disturbance and purposely targeted the officer in a very unpeaceful manner."

The sheriff added that despite stopping the vehicles for going 50 mph in a 30-mph zone and seeing tobacco products in the car, the deputy had issued verbal warnings rather than writing tickets. But Gibson was arrested after the incident with the sign, and she now faces nearly a year in jail if convicted on criminal mischief charges. The hate crime enhancement raises the charges to a more serious level of misdemeanor.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Gibson acknowledged waving the sign at the deputy before stepping on it and tossing it into a trash can. She said her actions were meant to show solidarity with her friend who was driving.

The ACLU says the case sends a chilling message

Under Utah's state hate crimes law, a person can be convicted of a hate crime if found to have committed an offense "with the intent to intimidate or terrorize another person or with reason to believe that his action would intimidate or terrorize that person."

At this point, it's an open question whether Gibson could be seen as having intimidated or terrorized the deputy, whom the sheriff described as a veteran member of the department who has seen combat duty in the U.S. military.

Critics said the Utah case is proof that including police in hate crime laws opens the door to undermining dissent and the right to free speech.

"This kind of charging decision sends an extremely chilling message to the community that the government will seek harsher punishment for people ... who disagree with police actions," the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said.

"We consistently warn that [hate crime] enhancements are oftentimes used to single out unpopular groups or messages rather than provide protections for marginalized communities," the ACLU chapter added. "This case has confirmed those warnings."

Most hate crime laws that include police also include firefighters and emergency responders. Two states — Utah and Vermont — also include U.S. military service members and veterans in their hate crime protections, according to the Brennan Center.

Under U.S. federal law, hate crimes are defined in five different statutes that have broadened the scope of protected categories since the Justice Department began enforcing them in 1968. As the department says, the laws cover crimes "committed on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability."

Garfield is a rural county in southern Utah, mostly known for including large chunks of national forests and parks, including Bryce Canyon. Its population is around 5,000 people, according to the U.S. census.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.