The nation was stunned last June when nine black parishioners were shot dead at a Charleston, South Carolina, church, in an attack labeled a hate crime, and community groups have reported a notable increase in violence against Muslims and mosques in the wake of last year’s terror acts in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Gay and transgender people also are regular targets.

Patchy reporting undercuts national hate crimes count

The knock on the door, strong and quick, jolted Barbara Hicks Collins awake. It was the middle of the night. Someone must be in trouble, she thought. She flung open her front door to the shocking sight of her car engulfed in flames.

Investigators later determined someone had deliberately set fire to her Mercedes and also tried to burn down the one-story brick house she shared with her mother in Bogalusa, an eastern Louisiana town once known as a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity.

Hicks Collins, a black woman, had no doubt the fire — set on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2012 — was racially motivated. Her father had been a prominent civil rights leader who filed lawsuits that desegregated local schools and forced police to protect protesters, and her family remained active in the cause.

Despite the circumstances, the case was never counted in the nation’s annual tally of hate crimes. In fact, neither the local police department nor the sheriff has filed a hate crime report with the FBI since at least 2009.

And that’s not unusual, an investigation by The Associated Press found.

The AP examined FBI hate crime reports for the years 2009 through 2014 and matched those against every city and county law enforcement agency in each state.

The analysis revealed that more than 2,700 agencies never filed even a single hate crime report. Beyond that, law enforcement reporting is spotty at best.

Advocates worry the lack of a comprehensive, annual accounting disguises the extent of bias crimes at a time of heightened tensions over race, religion and sexual identity.

SPOTTY REPORTING

Statistics analyzed by AP revealed wide disparities in how seriously states take the reporting. Nationwide, there were 16 states in which more than 25 percent of local law enforcement agencies did not appear at all in the FBI hate crime database between 2009 and 2014.

In addition, thousands of city police and county sheriff’s departments — which handle the vast majority of local law enforcement responses and investigations — reported in some years but not others. And, in some cases, departments reported for, say, only one quarter of a year without submitting reports covering the rest of that span.

Some agencies said they thought they were reporting, even though they were not, and some thought they didn’t have to file reports because they hadn’t investigated any hate crimes.

In Wisconsin, law enforcement agencies in Argyle, Belmont, Dickeyville, Potosi and Shullsburg didn’t file reports, according to the AP.

Nationwide, the vast majority of the departments that did not file any reports during the six-year period represented small towns, often of just several thousand residents or fewer.

That held true in Wisconsin. The population in the village of Argyle, for instance, is about 850 people. The population in the village of Belmont is just under 1,000.

A better accounting of hate crimes, the FBI and other proponents say, would increase awareness and also boost efforts to combat bias crimes with more resources for law enforcement training and community outreach.

“We need the reporting to happen,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. “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.”

FBI Director James Comey has called on all agencies to do a more aggressive job tracking hate crimes and also initiated training sessions on bias attacks for hundreds of law enforcement officers nationwide.

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.” Filing reports for the federal count is voluntary and guidelines call for reports to be submitted even if they list zero hate crimes, a signal to both the FBI and the community that local departments are taking such crimes seriously.

Under FBI guidelines, an incident should be reported as a suspected hate crime if a “reasonable and prudent” person would conclude a crime was motivated by bias. Among the criteria for evaluation is whether an incident coincided with a significant holiday or date, specifically citing the King holiday. A suspect need not be identified to meet the threshold for reporting.

In response to an inquiry about Hicks Collins’ case, officials with the Bogalusa Police and the Washington Parish Sheriff’s Department said they didn’t know hate crime information was not being reported and blamed clerical errors.

Four years later, no arrests have been made in the attack on her house and the state fire marshal’s office, which ultimately conducted the investigation, said it was unable to determine whether the setting of the fires constituted a hate crime or not.

For Hicks Collins, the failure to count the 2012 attack as a hate crime is a painful reminder of the continuing struggle for racial progress.

“The more things change,” she said, “the more they remain the same.”

SEEKING BETTER ACCOUNTING, MORE INCLUSIVE LAWS

Between 5,000 and 7,000 hate crime incidents are catalogued each year in the FBI report, with nearly half of all victims in recent years targeted because of their race.

“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 survey.

The ADL has launched a “50 States Against Hate” campaign that makes improved data collection by law enforcement a top priority. The group also is seeking passage of hate crime laws in the five states that do not have them: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming.

Additionally, the ADL campaign wants some states, including Wisconsin, to expand existing hate crimes legislation.

Lonnie Nasatir, ADL’s regional director for the Greater Chicago/Upper Midwest Region, offered four ways Wisconsin could improve its hate crimes measures:

• The law should be amended to include crimes where the victim is targeted because of gender or gender identity. “Inclusion of these categories is essential,” the ADL said in a statement. “As we have seen in news reports across the country, violence targeting transgender individuals continues to be prevalent.”

• The law currently applies when the victim is targeted because of his or her protected characteristic. However, measures in other states, including Illinois, address the targeting of an individual because of an association with another person. For example, a bias crime might be committed against a white woman who is married to an African-American man or against the straight child of a lesbian mom.

• Wisconsin law should be amended to include mandatory law enforcement training.

• The law should be amended to include mandatory data collection in the state.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the United States, said, “If these crimes are never really counted, it’s a way of saying they are not important. For many black people, it’s another form of being victimized. It’s a way of saying your life doesn’t matter.”

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include details about hate crime data and hate crime legislation in Wisconsin.

 

1 comment

  1. Anon 17 June, 2016 at 10:26 Reply

    Well there were several times that this happened in Potosi. Being a homosexual male and having a lot of run-ins with people that do not like gays… I can say it happens. I have made several calls to the local police before they were outsourced to the Grant Co. Sheriff’s Dept. (which btw has been great in these types of situations). I attribute most to uneducated kids in the School System, but as recent as last week these incidents have still happened. Normally it wouldn’t bother me, but this last time a blue Chevy had to fly around the corner on their way from Cassville up N. Main St and had to yell a slur in front of my landlords and 2 or 3 elderly persons coming from the Potosi Inn Bar/Hotel. Don’t know who it was, but I guess I should get used to not knowing and the cowards that can say things in passing and not to my face.

Leave a reply