Sunday, December 03, 2006

Falling down on hate crimes

When the FBI released its hate-crime statistics for 2005 earlier this year, many of us who track hate crimes were a little surprised at the results: the total number of hate crimes reported to the FBI had decreased for the first time in several years.

That was anomalous with what many of us saw at least anecdotally, with an increased number of bias-motivated crimes cropping up in a number of quarters. The most notable change was the increasing violence targeting Latinos amid an acrimonious and racially charged immigration debate.

This doesn't necessarily mean the total numbers of hate crimes will be increasing; oftentimes, the people capable of committing such crimes simply shift their targets, depending largely on demographic shifts and the xenophobia du jour. In fact, as I noted earlier, we saw exactly that phenomenon in California, where the total number of hate crimes declined 4.5 percent last year but hate crimes against Hispanics increased 6.5 percent.

Yet in this year's FBI report, anti-Hispanic bias crimes were reported as having actually declined in pure numbers, and held steady as a percentage of all hate crimes.

Well, it turns out that the 2005 statistics showed a decrease in hate crimes for a much simpler reason: Fewer law enforcement officials were even bothering to report them. had the details a couple of weeks ago:
FBI Hate Crime Statistics for 2005 Called Incomplete

The Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) recently released "Hate Crime Statistics, 2005" shows a decrease in the total number of hate crimes in the United States.

However, those same statistics also reveal that some of the largest cities in America failed to report their hate crimes, prompting many civil rights groups to call the statistics "incomplete."

A hate crime is defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as acts of violence motivated by race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin. According to the FBI report, 7,163 incidents of hate crimes were reported in 2005, down from 7,649 in 2004.

However, with no data on hate crimes from New York City and Phoenix -- two of the Top 10 largest cities in the U.S. -- civil rights groups have said the data is incomplete. "The fact that New York City and Phoenix did not report hate crime data to the FBI ... marks a setback to the progress the Bureau has made in the program," said Deborah M. Lauter, director of civil rights at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Louisville, the 26th largest city in the United States, also failed to report any hate crimes.

There is also concern that there were no reports of hate crime in two states and fewer than 10 hate crimes reported in four others, perhaps by virtue of the voluntary nature of the reporting. Neither Mississippi or Alabama reported any hate crimes for 2005, Hawaii did not participate at all, Wyoming reported 3, Alaska reported 4, and South Dakota reported 9.

In 2004, New York City reported 97 hate crimes; Phoenix reported 100. If either city had real numbers of hate crimes similar to those in 2005, then that's nearly 200 unreported hate crimes from those two cities alone.

These problems underscore a larger and persistent problem with the FBI's hate-crime reportage system: it simply is not working well, largely because of the failure of many law-enforcement officials to participate, compounded by a disinclination to either investigate or prosecute many clear-cut hate crimes. What's particularly likely to happen is for hate crimes against Latino immigrants to go completely unreported even to police in the first place.

The cumulative effect is that the FBI's numbers probably reflect only about one-fifth of all the nation's hate crimes. And when major cities fall out of the reportage, those numbers decline even farther.

I explored this in some detail a while back, citing from my book Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America:
Initiated in 1990 with the passage of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, the project [for collecting hate-crime statistics] under the care of the FBI was largely understood in its early years to be nascent and problematic at the outset, for a variety of reasons: many law-enforcement agencies were slow to participate; the initial numbers of hate crimes were likely to be skewed by the sharp increase certain to result from increased awareness of the crimes; and uncertainty and confusion reigned regarding the need to report and how to do it. It was hoped that, given enough time, the reporting system's flaws would self-correct and begin providing a clearer picture of the phenomenon. That was largely what happened. As already noted, by 1996 the wild fluctuations in numbers that occurred early on had largely disappeared, and the statistics began indicating a fairly stable phenomenon indicating about 8,000 bias crimes reported annually, and largely stable percentages of the kinds of the different kinds of hate crimes.

However, what closer examination -- particularly the Department of Justice study [titled "Improving the Quality and Accuracy of Hate Crime Reporting, conducted by the Justice Research and Statistics Association released and coauthored by Northeastern University's Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research] -- revealed was a reporting system that was deeply flawed, with statistics distorted by widespread failures to report the crimes and moreover, confusion about the differences between the absence of a report and the active reporting of zero hate crimes. The DOJ study, which surveyed 2,657 law-enforcement agencies, reported a "major information gap" in the data: It estimated that some 37 percent of the agencies that did not submit reports nevertheless had at least one hate crime. Worse yet, roughly 31 percent of the agencies that reported zero hate crimes did, in fact, have at least one; about 6,000 law-enforcement agencies (or one-third of the total of participants) likely dealt with at least one unreported bias crime. All told, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that the total number of hate crimes committed annually in America is closer to 50,000 than the 8,000 found in statistics.

"The overall numbers are worthless," says hate-crime expert Donald P. Green, a Yale University professor whose work includes debunking the notion that tough economic times increase the likelihood of hate crimes. Green says that bias crimes are especially likely to arise when minorities, for a variety of economic reasons, begin moving into communities that were previously homogeneous (that is, for the most part, predominantly white, such as the Midwestern communities that are currently experiencing a large influx of Hispanics); or when previously oppressed minorities, such as homosexuals, begin asserting themselves in public fashion.

And as I described later in the book, the underreportage problem becomes acute with people who have reasons not to go to police, including gay men. This occurs on a massive scale in Latino and other immigrant communities, where even legal immigrants are reluctant to contact police out of fear of being deported:
Of all the factors that cause law-enforcement officers to fail to identify and investigate bias crimes, the most significant, the DOJ study's authors found, was the gap between the victims and the police. The less trust that exists between minorities and their local law enforcement, the greater the likelihood that hate crimes will go unresolved.

The Filipino family that encountered Chris Kinison and his friends in Ocean Shores was a textbook example of how hate crimes can go unresolved this way. Many of the victims spoke poor English and had difficulty communicating with the police officers who came to their rescue; even though some of them later reported that they had wanted to pursue harassment charges against the men, the officers either failed or refused to register this. And the officers, little trained in dealing with hate crimes, clearly did not recognize that they had come upon the scene of a felony, which in most other such cases would require a careful and serious investigation and specialized handling of the victims.

By seeming eager to simply break up the potential violence and send everyone on their respective ways -- and particularly by escorting the family to the town's borders -- the officers communicated to the victims the message that the harassment they had endured was insignificant. This in turn feeds the distrust that any outsider (particularly a minority) in a strange town is likely to feel.

Moreover, the incident vividly illustrates that the problem of letting hate crimes go unresolved extends well beyond the mere statistical issues, and that the stakes can be very high indeed, especially for small towns. The result, as it was in Ocean Shores, was that these crimes can escalate from simple harassment to outright violence. Perpetrators, as some studies have observed, see their escape from the arm of the law almost as an invitation to step things up.

Other studies have likewise observed that the most common cause of this cascade of crime is the failure of police to proactively bridge the gap between themselves and the victims. The JRSA's Joan Weiss, in earlier research, found that the reluctance of victims to report crimes was significantly higher for hate crimes than for other crimes. The DOJ study reiterates this point: "For a multitude of reasons, hate crime victims are a population that is leery of reporting crimes -- bias or otherwise -- to law enforcement agencies."

Most hate-crime victims are minorities in the communities where the crimes occur. In many cases, they have poor English skills and have difficulty asking for assistance; in others, they may simply be unaware that what has happened to them is a serious crime. This is particularly true for immigrants, who may be reluctant to even contact police because of their experience with law enforcement in their homelands, where corruption and indifference to such crimes are not uncommon. Likewise, hate-crime victims may be confused about or unaware of the bias motivation involved, interpreting a threat or assault as a random act when other evidence suggests it was not. At other times, they may be reluctant to tell police about the bias aspects of the acts against them, fearing the police won't believe them or that they simply won't do anything about it anyway. And in the case of gays and lesbians, many are reluctant to report the crimes out of fear they will be forced to reveal their own identities as homosexuals; many more fear (sometimes with good reason) that they will wind up being humiliated and victimized further by police.

Likewise, many minorities in certain communities -- blacks in the South or Hispanics in the Southwest, for example -- have long histories of built-up distrust of law enforcement in their communities, and may simply refuse to participate in an investigation without proactive efforts on the part of police to bridge that gap. Indeed, this level of involvement was almost unanimously the chief factor reported by advocacy groups when queried by the authors of the DOJ study about what most affected hate-crime victims' decision to call or cooperate with police.

The causes of the increasing failure of the FBI to obtain the necessary data, as was clearly the case this year, lie both with the FBI -- which has not prioritized improving its hate-crime reportage -- and with local law enforcement, who increasingly are either resistant to participating in the program or have become so lax about it that they don't bother.

This laxity is reflective of a larger softening of public attitudes about hate crimes, particularly among libertarians and some liberals, including on the political front. There seems to be little appreciation for the reality that hate-crimes laws are about protecting people's freedoms, not taking them away -- unless you consider depriving other people of their freedoms a form of protectable freedom itself.

This shift in attitudes is reflected at all levels of the law-enforcement system, from police investigators who dismiss them as "political correctness," to prosecutors who choose not to bring hate-crimes charges in fairly clear-cut cases for extraordinarily weak reasons, to judges who dismiss charges against perpetrators by declaring that "boys will be boys".

Bias crimes have managed to slip off the national radar. Too bad it probably will take some horrifically gruesome murder to bring them back.

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