As with previous years’ data, it’s incomplete at best and misleading at worst. Of the 16,039 law enforcement agencies the FBI relies on to report hate crimes to its national database, only 2,026 ― a bit more than 12% ― actually did so.
The remaining 14,013 agencies, roughly 88% of the total, reported zero hate crimes whatsoever. Sadly, that’s not because of an absence of hate crimes, but an absence of reporting. Those 14,013 agencies police more than 100 million people across 49 states, and collectively claimed not a single hate crime occurred in any of their jurisdictions.
“Every year a large number of jurisdictions fail to report hate crimes,” Jack Levin, a professor at Northeastern University and co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict, told HuffPost. “Even though they claim to cooperate with the FBI there are certain states that report very few hate crimes.”
“It doesn’t mean that they have few hate crimes, it just means they don’t have a specialized unit or the resources available to make the identification and arrests necessary in reporting them to the FBI,” he said.
Levin specifically mentioned Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Wyoming as states whose lack of reporting falsely gives the appearance of having very few hate-motivated offenses. Proper reporting requires time, training, effort and resources that not every agency can offer.
Lack of reporting at the agency level is compounded by underreporting of hate crimes in general. For a variety of reasons, many victims never report the crime to police in the first place. Shame, distrust of law enforcement, and even fear of deportation can all play a role, for example.
Of those that are reported, police or prosecutors may not document them as a hate crime. Different agencies have different definitions of what constitutes a hate crime, while different officers may have different biases and different standards of reporting. And even then, data recorded at the local and state levels isn’t necessarily shared with the FBI at the federal level.
Variability at each step in the process degrades the quantity and quality of data, which the FBI acknowledges in a warning on the data’s pitfalls ― and against “incomplete analyses” given “the uniqueness of each locale.”
Regardless of what the report finds or how incomplete it may be, it’s still critically important we track hate crimes and pass laws that specifically target their perpetrators, said Levin.
“Hate crime laws send a message to the perpetrators who would like to believe that they have the encouragement and support of the community,” he said. “Hate crimes laws say no, we welcome diverse individuals into our town or city, and hate crime laws also send a message to the victims that, mainly, that we will not tolerate intolerance and that is really the symbolic meaning of what hate crimes laws are all about.”