By Shruti Banerjee
From the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 to the Oak Creek Temple Shooting in 2012 to the recent shooting of three Muslim students in North Carolina, crimes motivated by prejudice occur all too often in the United States. Despite this, hate crimes are poorly documented by the government. An analysis of the US’s current methods of data collection on hate crimes shows drastic discrepancies in the data and severe underreporting of hate crimes, leading to an inability to properly address the underlying causes and frequency of these crimes.
Unable to adequately prevent, combat and prosecute hate crimes, minority groups in the US are left vulnerable to attacks and mistrustful of police. Not only does this allow for hate crimes to continue unabated, it also renders the US out of compliance with Article 26 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as documented by a 2013 shadow report for the United States’ fourth Universal Periodic Review by the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD). Article 26 of the ICCPR requires the protection of marginalized communities and prevention of hate crimes.
The US currently employs two different databases with varying data collection methods to assess the prevalence of hate crimes in the US—the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). In 1990, Congress passed the Hate Crime Statistics Act to collect data “about crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.” The Act was amended in 1994 by The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act to include crimes against people with disabilities and in 2009 by The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act to include statistics on hate crimes based on gender and gender identity prejudices. In 1996, hate crime data collection become a permanent part of the FBI UCR Program, which served as the primary source of data on hate crimes until the introduction of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) in 2003.
The FBI UCR Program collects data on hate crimes known to the police and other law enforcement agencies. They rely entirely on the voluntary cooperation of state and local officials to accurately report hate crimes as outlined by the FBI Hate Crime Data Collection Guidelines and Training Manual, which trains law enforcement officials in discerning whether a crime was motivated wholly or in part by prejudice.
In contrast to the FBI’s UCR Program, the NCVS is a self-report survey annually conducted by U.S. Census Bureau for BJS. The NCVS collects data on hate crimes both reported and unreported to law enforcement and allows the victim to define whether a hate crime occurred. For a crime to be classified as a hate crime in the NCVS, the victim must show that the incident was motivated by bias in at least one of three ways: police confirmation, use of discriminatory language by the offender or presence of hate symbols.
INCOMPLETE AND CONFLICTING DATA
The discrepancy in hate crime statistics between the two databases are both jarring and disturbing. In 2012, the FBI’s Annual Hate Crime Statistic’s Report reported 5,796 hate crimes, while the NCVS estimated 293,800 violent and property hate crimes in the same year. This disparity can be attributed in part to the FBI’s method of data collection. Since state and local agencies are not legally obligated to provide data to the FBI, hate crimes are often underreported. For example, according to the FBI’s data, there were zero hate crimes in Mississippi and Alabama in 2005. In contrast, California reported 1,379 incidents and New York reported 249 hate crimes in the same year. Drastic differences among state statistics such as these show how political motivations may hinder reporting. “The FBI hate crime count is based on a voluntary reporting system that many local police jurisdictions refuse to support,” Professor Jack Levin said in an interview with HateWatch. He continued, “It is hard to imagine such a huge divergence in rates [among states] arising out of anything but different reporting standards — and, perhaps, different levels of enthusiasm for reporting hate crimes at all.”
Moreover, states vary greatly in how they define hate crimes and in their standards for training law enforcement officials about detecting these crimes. Some don’t have an official data collection system for hate crimes and the majority of states do not require their police to be trained in identifying hate crimes, contributing furthermore to the lack of reporting. Even when hate crimes are properly classified by police, they often go unreported, possibly due to public relations concerns or a police officer’s personal bias. There may also be an unwillingness to publicize the attacks because it could garner more attention for minority group interests like LGBT rights and immigration reform.
Another part of the problem is the extremely low rate of victims reporting hate crimes to the police and other law enforcement agencies. According to the BJS an estimated 60 percent of hate crimes were not reported to law enforcement in 2012. This low rate of reporting to law enforcement can be attributed to many possible factors, including: distrust of the police, the fact that showing prejudice motivation is often difficult to prove, fear of racist or homophobic sentiment from the police, fear of deportation, fear of retaliation from ones attacker, fear of being exposed as a part of the LGBT community, lack of English proficiency, limited knowledge of the rights and services available to victims, and cultural norms against reporting/complaining, according to Levin and the ICAAD.
Without complete and accurate data on the prevalence of hate crimes, government officials and law enforcement agencies cannot make sound decisions about properly allocating resources to prosecute and prevent them, allowing for crimes to spiral out of control. For example, the Hispanic community in the US has seen an uptick in hate crimes. The BJS data from 2004 to 2012 showed that in 2012, 51 percent of hate crimes were motivated by ethnicity (the victim’s ancestral, cultural, national or social affiliation). Notably, the rate of violent hate crimes against Latinos rose more than threefold from 2011 (0.6 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older) to 2012 (2.0 per 1,000). This may have contributed to the 12 percent overall increase of hate crimes involving violence from 2004 (78 percent) to 2011 and 2012 (90 percent). In December 2008, LatinoJustice filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) asserting that, “The United States is failing to meet its obligation to ensure the security of Latinos who are residing in the United States. Latinos are being targeted, attacked, brutalized and murdered because of their race and ethnicity, and increasingly because of their perceived immigration status in incidents with rising frequency and severity throughout the United States. The United States is doing nothing to prevent these attacks or to protect Latinos from these incidents of hate.”
Alarmingly, Hispanics are not the only ones who are increasingly targeted. The NCVS data shows that the percentage of hate crimes motivated by religious bias almost tripled from 10 percent in 2004 to 28 percent in 2012, and that those influenced by gender bias increased twofold from 12 percent to 26 percent during the same period. These numbers indicate a recent rise in anti-Arab/Muslim-sentiment and an increase in crimes against the LGBT community. This could be attributed to negative media representations of minority groups, political discourse surrounding their interests and rights, as well as general lack of knowledge of these communities’ values.
STOPPING CRIMES STARTS WITH ACCURATE DATA
Without hard numbers to prove the frequency and patterns in these hate motivated crimes, we allow our elected officials to write off the underlying issues behind hate crimes by viewing them as isolated incidents or calling them “senseless acts of violence”. Although the FBI UCR has tried to fill gaps in its data collection by expanding the bias types in the religious category to include all the religions identified by the U.S. Census Bureau and Pew Research Center, and by revising its hate crime data collection procedures to include an anti-Arab bias motivation beginning January 2015, these changes are merely a step in the right direction. The FBI’s reports will not reflect the true number of hate crimes in the US until all state offices accurately identify and report hate crimes, and victims of hate crimes feel comfortable reporting these incidents to law enforcement.
We cannot continue to ignore the factors that are contributing to these hate crimes and need to be critical of our elected officials when they do not take active steps to protect our communities under frequent attack. A crime motivated by hate is not senseless—it is calculated, intentional and rooted in bias. Ultimately, without proper data collection we are unable to gauge the full scope of hate driven crimes and our ignorance allows these crimes to continue unabated.
Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.
Photo credit: Tony Webster/Creative Commons