Why FBI Hate Crime Data Doesn't Reflect Reality

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on June 14, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Local law enforcement is supposed to report hate crimes to the FBI so that it can get a handle on how many people nationally are targeted every year for who they are. What makes a hate crime special and deserving of this extra attention is that it's motivated by hate for the victim's race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.

But according to the Associated Press, about 17 percent of local agencies have submitted no reports in six years, which makes it much more difficult to assess and address hate nationwide. It's not even clear how many incidents actually occur, much less what to do about them. The AP's investigation identified more than 2,700 city police and county sheriff's departments across the country that have not submitted a single hate crime report for the FBI's annual crime tally in years.

What Does This Mean?

The reason that we need to know just how many of the crimes that occur are motivated by hate -- and not greed, say -- is that this would enable authorities nationally to better address bias. Some experts say that by failing to report hate crimes to the FBI, we can maintain an illusion that things are fine, and that bias is not a major factor in crime, although this does seem to be a time when racial tensions are high.

According to the FBI, better information means more effective prevention of hate crimes and bigger budgets for law enforcement. That latter point is interesting and important. When the locally reported numbers don't reflect how many hate crimes really happen, then there appears to be little need to address bias-motivated violence or to allocate funds in the budget to address bias, apart from giving a false impression of safety.

How Numbers Help

"We need the reporting to happen," said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, to the AP. "Without a diagnosis, we don't know how serious the illness is. And without a diagnosis, there is no prescription. And without a prescription, there is no healing."

For the victims of these crimes, this failure to report only confirms a sense of alienation. "If these crimes are never really counted, it's a way of saying they are not important," said Mark Potok with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Drive for Better Data

Gawker states that about a quarter million hate crimes occur annually. But it's not clear where this estimated figure in its report comes from or how close it is to an accurate reflection. What is clear, however, is that many city and county law enforcement agencies are failing to report at all, making it more difficult to get a reliable estimate.

"It is the most important data collection initiative, but it is far from complete," Michael Lieberman, the Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, said of the FBI's hate crime survey. The ADL has launched a "50 States Against Hate" campaign focused on improving data collection by law enforcement and is seeking passage of hate crime laws in the five states that do not have them: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Wyoming.

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