As hate crimes surge, why do most go uncounted?

20 January 2023

(The Hill) — In the spring of 2020, someone defaced two synagogues in Huntsville, Alabama, with antisemitic graffiti on consecutive days. Police and federal agents swooped in to investigate. Even the mayor got involved. 

And then, at year’s end, the Huntsville police reported zero hate crimes for 2020. 

That odd anecdote illustrates the vast undercount of hate crimes in America. The FBI reports fewer than 10,000 in a typical year. Meanwhile, another Justice Department agency tabulated more than 300,000 hate crimes in 2019 alone. 

“The reality is, we really don’t know anything about hate crimes,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “If we actually collected the data, we would be horrified.” 

The FBI reported roughly 7,300 hate crimes for 2021. Agency leaders acknowledged their data omitted vast swaths of the nation, including New York City and most of California.  

More than one-third of the nation’s law enforcement agencies failed to deliver hate-crime data for 2021 under a new federal reporting system. Add the missing crimes, experts say, and the annual total rises to at least 9,800, the largest number since the FBI began collecting hate-crime statistics in the 1990s. 

“The FBI data is terrible, incomplete and unusable,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociologist at American University who specializes in extremism. “I think it was really unconscionable this year to release it at all.” 

None of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies is required to submit hate-crime data to the FBI. Victim advocates would like a congressional mandate for law enforcers to report hate crimes. 

But even if the FBI heard from every police chief and sheriff in the nation, analysts say, the Bureau’s official report would enumerate only a tiny percentage of all hate crimes. 

Most agencies that do participate “send in a form that says ‘zero,’” said Brian Levin, a professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. 

Consider Huntsville. In April 2020, antisemitic graffiti appeared at two synagogues during the Jewish holiday of Passover: a textbook hate crime. Security camera footage suggested the same person had defaced both properties. Reporters descended.  

“The police chief was involved, the mayor was involved, the FBI was involved. They were all involved,” said Rabbi Moshe Cohen of Chabad of Huntsville, one of the targeted synagogues. 

When the dust cleared, all of Huntsville seemed to know of the attacks. Yet, in its year-end tally of 2020 crime data, the Huntsville Police reported no hate crimes to the FBI.  

Collectively, Alabama’s 432 law enforcement agencies reported fewer than three dozen hate crimes to the federal agency for 2020. For 2019, Alabama reported no hate crimes at all. 

Those reports came in, or didn’t, under the FBI’s old reporting system, in which 93 percent of law enforcement agencies professed to participate. 

Alabama’s infinitesimal hate crime tally is not unusual.  

The Hate Crimes Dashboard for Miami-Dade County, maintained by the Miami-Dade Police, shows 16 hate crimes since 2018 in its jurisdiction, which covers large portions of a county with 2.7 million residents. 

Miami itself reported no hate crimes in several recent years, Levin said.  

The Anti-Defamation League keeps a spreadsheet of large cities that reported no hate crimes in either 2020 or 2021. They include Miami, St. Petersburg and Tallahassee, Fla., Des Moines, Iowa, Little Rock, Ark., Montgomery, Ala., and Jackson, Miss. 

“And I think it’s not credible that there would not be hate crimes in jurisdictions with 100,000 population,” said Steven M. Freeman, vice president of civil rights at the Anti-Defamation League.  

Levin and his colleagues at Cal State San Bernardino comb big-city crime stats to populate periodic reports on urban hate crimes. They found a nearly 40 percent increase in those crimes between 2020 and 2021 in the 10 most populous U.S. cities.  

Hate crimes surged again in 2022, Levin said, at least in the largest cities. Los Angeles reported 643 hate crimes, a 13 percent year-to-year increase. New York reported 619 hate crimes, an 18 percent increase. Chicago reported 167 crimes, a 61 percent rise.  

Those numbers suggest hate crimes are a bigger problem in Los Angeles than in New York, which has a larger population but fewer crimes. More likely, the discrepancy simply means the two agencies count the crimes in different ways. 

“The cities or the states that have the best reporting show the highest numbers,” Freeman said. “It doesn’t mean they have the biggest problem. It means they’re taking it more seriously.” 

Phoenix, with 1.6 million residents, reported 140 hate crimes in 2021, according to the Cal State report. Houston, a larger city, reported 47. Columbus, with 900,000 residents, reported 114 hate crimes. Fort Worth, population 928,000, reported 11. 

Factor in the thousands of law-enforcement agencies that reported no hate crimes at all, and the undercount appears to be massive. And the clearest evidence of the disparity comes from the Justice Department itself. The Bureau of Justice Statistics compiles reports from its National Crime Victimization Survey, which yields national data on hate crimes.  

The most recent report shows 305,390 hate crimes nationwide in 2019. The FBI, by contrast, has never logged even 10,000 hate crimes in a single year. That incongruity suggests FBI data may be capturing only 3 percent of all hate crimes. 

Yet, the FBI is considered the definitive source for hate crime statistics. 

“It’s the official numbers,” Miller-Idriss said. “They end up in briefings. They end up in official reports.” 

The reasons for the hate-crime undercount go beyond data collection. 

Many victims don’t report hate crimes to police. Some come from “vulnerable populations who may not report for really good reasons,” Miller-Idriss said. An undocumented immigrant, for example, may balk at reporting an anti-immigrant attack to police who might question the victim’s citizenship. 

And some law enforcement agencies don’t train officers to look for hate as a motive, yielding investigators who don’t know a hate crime “when they see one,” Freeman said.  

If the FBI had complete hate-crime data, civil rights leaders say, the numbers would show a steady increase across much of the nation.  

Advocates have also tracked a rise in noncriminal hate incidents, from hand gestures and racial slurs to “being told to go back to our country,” said Cynthia Choi, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition to address anti-Asian racism. “And this is happening largely in spaces that are open to the public.”   

Hate crime has ebbed and flowed over the past two decades. It surged in 2001, after the 9/11 terror attacks. The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 energized white supremacists. President Trump, elected in 2016, made comments about immigrants, women and other groups that “normalized” hate speech, Miller-Idriss said. The COVID-19 pandemic provoked attacks on Asian Americans.  

In the 2022 midterm elections, many candidates campaigned on anti-immigrant platforms, purportedly protecting the nation’s culture and heritage. Beirich and her anti-extremist group compiled a long list of political quotes that, in their view, invoke the racist Great Replacement theory. It holds that liberal elites are conspiring to replace white Christians with racial, ethnic and religious minorities.   

“We have an environment, a climate right now where elected officials are using their platform to spew hate and to spread misinformation,” Choi said.  

The Great Replacement theory motivated Payton Gendron, a white man accused in a 2022 Buffalo grocery store shooting that left 10 people dead in a predominantly Black neighborhood. 

“Hate crimes have an impact beyond the victim,” Freeman said. “They traumatize entire communities.”  

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