Advocacy Groups Push For Better Tracking Of Hate Crimes | KERA News

Advocacy Groups Push For Better Tracking Of Hate Crimes

Dec 29, 2016
Originally published on December 30, 2016 11:25 am

Since Donald Trump was elected president some police and advocacy groups have seen an increase in reports of attacks based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. But if you're looking for the total number of hate crimes that took place in the U.S. this year — that's one number that even the FBI can't provide with certainty.

Every year, the FBI releases a national count of hate crimes from the previous year. Its latest report, released in November, says there were 5,850 hate crimes in 2015. But law enforcement officials, including U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, will tell you that number is not exact.

"We know that there are many more hate crimes in communities, in all communities across this country, that go unreported," Lynch said during a speech in early December at a Muslim center in Sterling, Va.

For data-collecting purposes, the FBI defines a hate crime as a "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity."

Its hate crimes report relies on police and sheriff's departments to send in numbers — voluntarily.

Those numbers help lawmakers determine how to allocate law enforcement resources.

The FBI's tally is currently the most comprehensive national count of hate crimes, but Phyllis Gerstenfeld, author of Hate Crimes: Causes, Controls, and Controversies, warns against taking the numbers at face value because of the uneven reporting.

"You do have to look at them with skepticism. They can be really useful for understanding trends and also for comparing jurisdictions to each other," says Gerstenfeld, who also teaches criminal justice at California State University, Stanislaus.

During her speech, Lynch called for better reporting and data collection, especially since hate crimes in 2015 — including intimidation, assault and vandalism — increased more than 6 percent compared to 2014.

"Behind the pages of the reports lie communities who are now more afraid than before and more afraid than any American should ever feel," Lynch said.

Some advocacy groups are trying to quantify the sources of that fear faster than the FBI.

After the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center started collecting reports of hate crimes, plus other types of harassment that fall outside of what the FBI considers a hate crime. Relying on news reports, social media and submissions to their website that they try to verify independently, they've compiled reports of more than 1,000 incidents as of Dec. 12.

"Look, we're just getting at the tip of the iceberg," says Richard Cohen, the center's president. "But I think the trends of what we're seeing are very, very, real."

Most of the reported attacks targeted immigrants, and Cohen says overall, attacks appear to be more widespread than before.

"People are telling us again and again that they've never seen anything like this in their neighborhoods, that they've never been the victims of anything like this before," he says.

The number of new reports to the Southern Poverty Law Center has declined since the election.

But Cohen says he's worried about another uptick emerging around the time of Trump's inauguration.

For now, the Southern Poverty Law Center plans to keep counting bias-related incidents at least through January.

Trying to keep a verified count of these incidents has been taxing for the center and other advocacy groups.

"Sadly, you work longer hours. That's the only solution at this point," says Corey Saylor, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' department to monitor and combat Islamophobia.

Another problem with counting hate crimes, Saylor adds, is distrust of law enforcement officials that can lead to underreporting by targeted communities. Others may be overwhelmed by the number of attacks they receive.

"Many mosques, they get so many that they just don't bother," Saylor says. "Somebody will have left a message on your voicemail saying they're going to come and kill everybody, and people will just hit delete because they've become desensitized to it."

On the law-enforcement side, Saylor says some agencies may be reluctant to press hate crime charges because it can be hard to prove a person's bias as a motive.

Saylor and other advocates say so far, they've seen no indication that improving hate crime tracking nationally will be a priority for the Trump administration.

And that's why Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, says his and other groups are focusing more at the state level, especially in the five states that don't have hate crime laws — Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming.

"There are new majorities and new officials in place, so we've got to look state by state to determine, OK, where is it reasonable to believe we can actually get a hate crimes law on the books," Greenblatt says.

And once they're on the books, he says it may give us a better handle on hate crime numbers.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

How many hate crimes took place in the U.S. this year? Well, not even the FBI can answer that question with certainty. There has been an increase in reports of attacks based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation since Donald Trump was elected president. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on the difficulties of tracking hate crimes.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The FBI does release a national count of hate crimes every year, and its latest report says there were 5,850 hate crimes in 2015. But law enforcement officials will tell you that number is not exact.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LORETTA LYNCH: We know that there are many more hate crimes in communities, in all communities across this country that go unreported.

WANG: That was U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaking in early December about the FBI's latest hate crimes report. It defines hate crimes as a criminal offense against a person or property motivated by bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity.

The report relies on police and sheriff's departments to send in numbers voluntarily, and those numbers help lawmakers determine how to allocate law enforcement resources. Lynch said there's more work to do to improve reporting, especially since hate crimes, including intimidation, assault and vandalism, increased more than 6 percent compared to 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNCH: Behind the pages of the reports lie communities who are now more afraid than before and more afraid than any American should ever feel.

WANG: Some advocacy groups are trying to quantify the sources of that fear faster than the FBI. After the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center started collecting reports of hate crimes, plus other types of harassment that fall outside of what the FBI considers a hate crime. The center's president, Richard Cohen, says so far, they've compiled more than a thousand incidents.

RICHARD COHEN: Well, look; we're just getting at the tip of the iceberg, but I think the trends of what we're seeing are very, very real.

WANG: Most of the reported attacks targeted immigrants, and Cohen says overall, attacks appear to be more widespread than before.

COHEN: People are telling us again and again that they've never seen anything like this in their neighborhoods, that they've never been the victims of anything like this before.

WANG: The number of reports has dropped over the weeks, but Cohen says he's worried about another uptick around Donald Trump's inauguration. For now, the Southern Poverty Law Center plans to keep counting bias-related incidents at least through January. One big issue for advocacy groups is the time it takes to follow up and verify each report.

COREY SAYLOR: Sadly, you work longer hours. That's the only solution at this point.

WANG: Corey Saylor leads the Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and he says another problem with counting hate crimes is underreporting by targeted communities. Some may not trust law enforcement officials, and others may be overwhelmed by all the attacks they receive.

SAYLOR: Many mosques, they get so many that they just don't bother. So somebody will have left a message on your voicemail saying they're going to come and kill everybody, and people will just hit delete because they've become desensitized to it.

WANG: Saylor says on the law enforcement side, some agencies may be reluctant to press hate crime charges because it can be hard to prove a person's bias as a motive. He adds so far, he's seen no indication that improving hate crime tracking nationally will be a priority for the Trump administration. That's why Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League says his and other groups are focusing more on the state level, specifically the five states that don't have hate crime laws - Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: There are new majorities and new officials in place, so we've got to look state by state to determine, OK, where's it reasonable to believe we can actually get a hate crimes law on the books?

WANG: And once they're on the books, he says it may give us a better handle on the numbers. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.