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The Mathematics of Malice: Why Hate Crime Stats Can’t Be Trusted

When it comes to bias-motivated crimes, two plus two does not always equal four.

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Between 2004 and 2015, FBI data revealed that Americans experienced about 6,000 hate crimes per year. That’s a staggering amount of scorn. Unfortunately, the FBI is probably wrong.

During those same years, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) conducted its own survey of more than 50,000 U.S. residents. Based on those responses, the BJS estimated that Americans endured more like an average of 250,000 hate crimes per year. The massive discrepancy reflects the variety of challenges involved in tracking this particular offense. Not all states define hate crimes the same way, and four states (Wyoming, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina) don’t have hate crime laws at all.

Beyond that, not all law enforcement jurisdictions provide information to the FBI, and a remarkable number of those that do report zero hate crimes each year. That might be attributable to poor record-keeping; however, it could also be that some law enforcement officers aren’t familiar enough with bias-based crimes to recognize them. “It’s not something an officer is going to see every day,” says the Anti-Defamation League’s Jeremy Shaver. “That’s part of why the ADL does trainings at academies across the state.”

The most likely reason for the yawning gap between the FBI and BJS stats, though, is that hate crimes are incredibly under-reported by victims. “Not everyone who is the victim of a hate crime might feel comfortable going to law enforcement,” Shaver says. But an anonymous phone survey? That might feel less risky than talking to the police. After all, maybe you’re gay and you hadn’t yet come out to your family when you were attacked. Or perhaps you’re living in the country illegally and fear you’d be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement if you told the police about being harassed.

2 in 5 hate crimes that are reported to the police, according to a 2017 BJS report.

To combat these concerns, Denver and Boulder have each introduced hate crime hotlines (720-913-6458 and 303-441-1595, respectively), through which victims can report incidents and seek resources without having to go to the police. These hotlines also allow cities and states to track hate crimes beyond what’s reported to law enforcement. More of the country might soon be following suit: The National Opposition to Hate, Assault, and Threats to Equality Act, introduced in the U.S. House in 2019, would allocate funding to state and local governments for hotlines and training in identifying hate crimes. Any agency receiving this money would be required to provide data to the Justice Department or repay the grant it received.

Colorado agencies are also working to engage communities and encourage reporting. Denver District Attorney Beth McCann holds a monthly roundtable with immigration leaders to help her office better understand the issue, and the Boulder District Attorney’s Office also has hosted several workshops with community organizations and law enforcement bodies to learn more about victims’ perspectives. This year, the Denver Police Department created a bias-motivated crimes unit that includes community outreach specialists. And the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver, in addition to attending the FBI’s annual Hate Crime Summit, regularly brings together law enforcement and religious communities through its Protecting Houses of Worship program. “We want to be able to protect those facilities and those people,” says Jason Dunn, U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado. “We want people to know that federal law enforcement is a partner in preventing violence.” Part of that prevention means understanding the scope of the problem, and collectively, these efforts might just add up to more accurate accounting in Colorado.

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