December 19, 2017; NBC News
The numbers do lie, at least when it comes to the numbers of hate crimes in FBI reports. For example, NBC News notes “the Sikh Coalition said it received 15 legal intakes in 2016 from those who believed they were targeted in hate incidents. FBI data shows seven incidents.” How do such gaping data holes happen?
Readers may remember our coverage of the problems in the reporting or lack thereof of police-related shootings across the US. The data was so bad, in fact, that first the Guardian and then the Washington Post began their own tracking systems, a situation that the former director of the FBI himself called ridiculous, in that both papers had more information than his own agency did.
After a few years of activists and the media commenting on the absurdity that the United States lacks a reliable central count of “arrest-related deaths,” the Department of Justice has just announced that it will from now on require all police departments and medical examiners to give the DOJ full accountings of deadly incidents involving police under their command. But on top of that, the DOJ will seek to confirm fatal cases seen in media reports and elsewhere. The article announcing the program cited the Guardian’s “The Counted” as an influence and a source.
It’s good that nonprofits have created a parallel reporting system, because the issue of bad data is not confined to arrest-related deaths. The FBI recently released its 2016 Uniform Crime Reporting data indicating the hate crime statistics in the United States for that year. According to the report, there was just a five percent increase in hate crime incidents as compared to 2015, with the total number of incidents being 6,121. Interestingly, since this data began being tracked in the early 1990s, the percentage of law enforcement agencies that indicate no hate crimes occurred in their jurisdiction has increased from 73 percent in 1991 to 88 percent in 2016. This data stands in stark contrast to what we know to be true, which is that hate crime, particularly against certain populations, has been on the rise. NPQ has thoroughly documented these cases, especially since the 2016 election, which spurred a new wave of hate crimes. Thus, an important question is raised: Can the FBI’s data be trusted?
The answer is simple. The FBI’s data grossly underestimates the true extent of the hate crime problem in the United States. This issue has roots not only in how the FBI collects hate crime data, but also the voluntary nature of the Hate Crime Statistics Program. Law enforcement agencies volunteer their hate crime data and cannot be compelled to provide their statistics. In 2016, 15,254 law enforcement agencies participated in the Hate Crime Statistics Program. While the reporting agencies’ jurisdictions include close to 90 percent of the population, there are still agencies that do not report, making up the remaining 10 percent of the population. There is also some indication that the number of participating agencies is decreasing.
Moreover, because it is not mandatory to provide this data, collection and accuracy fall by the wayside. This is evident when we look at the Bureau of Justice Statistics data indicating there were 250,000 hate crime victimizations each year between 2004 and 2015. This huge difference is due in part to the fact that the BJS data includes both hate crime cases that were reported to law enforcement and those that were not. BJS estimates that about half of hate crime victimizations are not reported to the authorities, bringing the count down to 125,000 per year. This is still astonishingly far off from the FBI’s numbers.
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Some advocates, such as Sim J. Singh, the national advocacy manager for the Sikh Coalition, argue that mandated reporting is the solution. He says, “FBI hate crime data represents the tip of the iceberg and understates the magnitude of hate crime in America. The only way to bridge the data gap is for law enforcement agencies to adopt mandatory hate crime reporting.”
This is absolutely needed. Yet, even if reporting hate crime statistics becomes mandatory, there is still the issue of defining hate crimes and ensuring that officers accurately identify crimes as motivated by bias. ProPublica found that crimes that were clearly motivated by bias were not reported as such by law enforcement. For instance, scratching obscenities onto a car might get reported as solely vandalism as opposed to also being flagged as a hate crime. In this way, the true number of hate crimes gets diluted.
To truly get close to capturing accurate hate crime data, officers need to be trained from the academy level to view crimes through a social justice lens so they can recognize hate crimes for what they are when they occur. Further, there needs to be consensus on which definition of hate crime gets reported. For instance, in some states, crimes motivated by bias against gay people are not classified as hate crimes. However, under federal law, crimes motivated by sexual orientation are considered hate crimes. It needs to be clear to officers that the federal definition takes precedence in reporting.
Myesha Braden, a former prosecutor in the Department of Justice, explains why this training is so important: “If an officer knows coming into the police academy that hate crime is one of the important crimes they’ll be investigating, at least the seed is planted.”
Accurately capturing hate crime data is critical for too many reasons to list. However, two reasons arguably rank supreme. First, if crimes are not recorded as hate crimes, they will not get prosecuted as hate crimes. This means that a criminal can get away with a much lighter sentence and can then go on to harm more individuals. Secondly, and importantly for nonprofit organizations, is that federal data such as the FBI’s hate crime report drive legislative efforts and advocacy. If the FBI’s data show low rates of hate crime, legislators will not be motivated to pass laws protecting victims. Moreover, the general public won’t see it as a problem and will not rally behind organizations that advocate on behalf of victim groups.
The huge discrepancy between the FBI’s numbers and that of nonprofits and other agencies tracking hate crime data cannot be chalked up to bureaucracy and data getting lost in the shuffle. This is a clear indication that the government does not prioritize accurately tracking hate crimes and protecting its victims.—Sheela Nimishakavi