When Hate Crimes Don’t Matter: Widespread Under-Reporting Masks The Problem

My pastime of late is reading the New York Times. It reports on issues that both delight and confound me. Among the more confounding, hate crimes, specifically the under-reporting of them.

A disturbing example; the hate crime against Ms. Barbara Hicks Collins, the African-American daughter of a civil rights leader in Louisiana. On Martin Luther King Day in 2011, her car was set on fire.

Though Ms. Collins was known to the community and the local Klu Klux Klan, it was not reported as a hate crime. The Associated Press conducted an investigation and found that this happens more than we think. These types of crimes occur frequently, but go under-reported.

More than 2,700 city police and county sheriff’s departments across the country have not submitted a single hate crime report for the FBI’s annual crime tally during the past six years — about 17 percent of all city and county law enforcement agencies nationwide, according to the AP.

The culprit they cite: Clerical Errors. Really?

I know bureaucracy can get in the way of proper reporting of crimes. “I thought you were handling it, not me,” happens in offices all the time. But that, not-with-standing, I also know the FBI clearly defines what a hate crime is:

“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.”

The crime committed against Ms. Collins unequivocally happened because she was black. It is a hate crime.

To understand how this crime, along with others like it, can be overlooked as a hate crime, you first must understand how the FBI collects hate crime data. The FBI makes filing reports for the federal hate crime count a voluntary activity. Not every jurisdiction does it. Some are better at it than others.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been the most vocal advocate for increased reporting of hate crimes. They recently launched “50 States Against Hate” campaign that includes improved data collection by law enforcement as a top priority, and also passage of hate crime laws in the five states that do not have them: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming.

“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.

Just what is the official FBI count?

Between 5,000 and 7,000 hate crime incidents each year.

I have no background in criminal justice, but this seems way too low.

What are the consequences of under-reporting of hate crimes?

De-valuation of victims’ lives.

“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, which tracks hate groups in the U.S. “For many black people, it’s another form of being victimized. It’s a way of saying your life doesn’t matter.”

The bottom line is that accurate and timely reporting of this data is necessary for justice.  Without it victims and communities feel they do not deserve accountability. We, as a nation, also have no way of being fully informed of these crimes.