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November 21, 2017

The Story Behind the FBI’s Hate Crime Data

Reported hate crimes increased in the United States for the second consecutive year, according to data released last week by the FBI. The FBI’s statistics drew significant media attention, but can they be trusted to provide an accurate snapshot of hate crime in America?  

The FBI report is the most comprehensive collection of data on hate crimes across the country. It should be an important starting point, both in crafting policy and assuring victims that the crimes committed against them will be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted by local law enforcement. Yet this data is also deeply flawed, and therefore tells an incomplete story.

According to the FBI, hate crimes reported to law enforcement (which represents only a portion of overall hate crimes) increased nearly 5 percent in 2016. This uptick comes on the heels of a 6.8 percent rise in crimes reported in 2015. While the first three quarters of 2016 saw relatively modest fluctuations in crimes reported to authorities, data compiled by ProPublica reporter Ken Schwencke indicates that hate crimes reported in the last three months of last year—just before and after the U.S. presidential election—shot up by nearly 26 percent over the same quarter in 2015. 

This spike seems to corroborate earlier findings from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League that Donald Trump’s election coincided with a rise in bias-motivated incidents. However, correlation does not equal causation. Real world causation is difficult to prove since we can’t easily isolate other factors. Unfortunately, exacerbating these difficulties is the fact that the FBI’s data is too flawed to allow analysts to draw a more definitive conclusion about the relationship between the election and rising acts of hate.

What we can say with certainty is that the FBI’s statistics reflect significant underreporting. Serious gaps remain at each stage of reporting an alleged hate crime, from initial underreporting by victims, to what law enforcement recognizes as a potential hate crime (whether because of differences in definition, implicit biases of officers, or lack of training), to the forms of data that local authorities collect and report to the FBI. Until these gaps are addressed, the FBI’s data will continue to be of limited utility to policymakers.

Let’s take each of the weaknesses in turn. 

First, the FBI data is only as good as what victims report to law enforcement. Yet many of the communities most vulnerable to bias-motivated crimes—be they racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, undocumented individuals, or LGBT people—are often also the most marginalized by law enforcement, and thus less likely to present their crimes to authorities.

For instance, African Americans are among the groups most often targeted for hate crimes, yet are also disproportionally arrested and sentenced for alleged criminal activity in the U.S. criminal justice system. They are also statistically much more likely than other Americans to be victims of police brutality. Likewise, Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, a population increasingly vulnerable to hate crimes in the wake of major terror attacks, have at times been profiled or subjected to discriminatory surveillance by law enforcement. These experiences decrease community trust in law enforcement, and may mean that victims do not feel safe reporting crimes.

The National Crime Victimization Survey, a representative survey conducted by DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, attempts to account for this gap by collecting information on victims who did not report to law enforcement. The NCVS reported an average of 250,000 hate crime victimizations each year between 2004 and 2015, and estimated that 54 percent of hate crime victimizations were not reported to the police between 2011 and 2015.

Additionally, not all hate crimes reported to local law enforcement agencies are necessarily included in the data released to the public by the FBI. To be included, local law enforcement must properly recognize a report as a potential hate crime, find evidence of a bias motivation, and report the information to the FBI—all of which can be complicated in practice.  

A combination of several factors, including the non-mandatory nature of reporting; shortfalls in training, capacity, and resources at the local level; and an unwillingness by local jurisdictions to participate all contribute to the divide between what victims experience and what ultimately gets reported to the FBI.

In 2016, the FBI reports that 15,254 U.S. agencies submitted data, covering 89.7 percent of the population (compared to 14,997 in 2015). However, 88 percent of participating agencies affirmatively reported that zero hate crimes occurred in their jurisdictions in 2016. These include 70 cities with populations of over 100,000 residents, according to analysis by the Anti-Defamation League. It’s highly unlikely that zero hate crimes actually occurred in these cities while other comparable cities have significant numbers of them, to stay the least.

Contrast New York and Florida, which have comparable total populations. In 2016, agencies across New York reported 595 hate crimes, while those in Florida reported 96. While the differences in these numbers could conceivably reflect real differences in the actual number of crimes committed, but it’s very unlikely given that many cities in Florida, including Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Miami, and Tallahassee neglected to submit any data to the FBI. 

A similar story plays out between Washington, D.C. and Illinois.  These two jurisdictions reported similar numbers of hate crimes (115 and 111), but have vastly different populations (nearly 700,000 versus 13 million residents). Experts warn that such wildly divergent rates are in part due to local law enforcement’s ability and willingness to report.

One clear lesson to be from the 2016 FBI report is that it’s urgent for law enforcement at all levels to improve participation in federal hate crime reporting.

Where do we go from here? As a start, the FBI and DOJ should assess the barriers local agencies face in investigating and reporting hate crime statistics, and consider using incentives to encourage participation. They should offer training and technical assistance, focusing on agencies that do not currently participate or consistently report zero hate crimes.

Congress must do its part through legislation to strengthen reporting. Some members are already working toward improvement. The National Opposition to Hate, Assault, and Threats to Equality Act of 2017 (“NO HATE Act”), introduced earlier this year, would provide grants to states to implement the National Incident-Based Reporting System, the latest crime reporting standard used to submit detailed crime information to the FBI. Instituting reporting through NIBRS would address some concerns around capacity, and would constitute a step forward in enabling local agencies to report credible information. 

Much work remains to ensure that policymakers have reliable hate crime data. Earlier this year, Human Rights First joined more than 80 organizations calling on the DOJ to improve data collection. For a more comprehensive set of recommendations, see the coalition’s letter to Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.