Article: How Low Hate Crime Numbers Keep Tensions High | Not in Our Town

Article: How Low Hate Crime Numbers Keep Tensions High

Not In Our Town and the COPS Office of the U.S. Department of Justice have once again collaborated to raise awareness within the law enforcement community of the hate crimes reporting gap. COPS Office Director Ronald L. Davis and Not In Our Town CEO and Executive Director Patrice O'Neill have co-authored an article highlighting the problems raised by the hate crimes reporting gap and practical solutions to combat the under reporting. This article originally appeared in the May 2016 edition of The Police Chief, the official publication of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The Hate Crimes Reporting Gap: Low Numbers Keep Tensions High

Ronald L. Davis, Director, Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, and Patrice O’Neill, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer, Not In Our Town

How many hate crimes have occurred in the community during the past year? Many sheriffs or chiefs of police would probably say that there have been few, if any, in their communities. However, they would probably be wrong. Hate crimes are overwhelmingly underreported—by both victims and law enforcement officers. Yet, despite the fact that they are largely unacknowledged, these crimes and their associated problems—fear, social unrest, and alienation—occur at an alarming rate.1 What’s more, the very fact that hate crimes are underreported not only encourages such incidents, but also poisons relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

There are compelling reasons to seek accurate reporting of hate crimes:

  • Hate crimes are overwhelmingly violent and often more vicious than other assaults.
  • They affect the entire community, not just the victims.
  • Underreporting of hate crimes spreads fear and distrust of the police.
  • Reporting hate crimes can lead to their prevention by identifying those prone to these activities and sending a message that these crimes will not be ignored.

250,000 Hate Crime Victims Each Year; Only 1/3 Reported

If one goes by the numbers, hate crimes appear to be quite rare and almost non-existent in some U.S. states. Alabama, for instance, reported only six hate crimes in 2013. Wyoming reported one for the same period, and Mississippi reported four.2 According to recent Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics, about 87 percent of law enforcement agencies in the United States reported no hate crimes in 2013.3 The old cliché, “statistics lie,” holds especially true in the case of hate crimes. In 2011, the total number of incidents throughout the United States reported to the FBI was 6,200, with about 7,000 people victimized. However, a recent study by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) showed that more than 250,000 people in the United States over the age of 12 years old were victimized each year from 2003 through 2011, either through violent or property crimes.4 Why the discrepancy between the reported numbers and the study? The numbers from the BJS statistics come from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), considered the most accurate survey of its kind. Unlike the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Hate Crime Statistics, which is a voluntary reporting system that many jurisdictions don’t use and which can encompass only crimes that are reported, the NCVS data are collected from a United States–wide representative sample of approximately 90,000 households. Those in the representative sample, surveyed twice a year, provide responses on a wide variety of crimes, including those not reported to the police.5

Arrests Decline as Crimes Increase

The NCVS findings are shocking, but even more alarming are the statistics on apprehension. Between 2003 and 2006, suspects were arrested in just 10 percent of hate crimes. Between 2007 and 2011, that number decreased to a mere 4 percent.6 Clearly, hate crimes are on the rise, while reporting is on the decline. What is not always clear are the complex reasons for this decline. One challenge to reporting these crimes is defining them. Unless there is bias involved, a person killing the boss who fired him or her is not a hate crime, no matter how high the degree of animosity. According to the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, hate crimes are “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, gender or gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.”7

A Threat to the Entire Community

What makes these crimes so pernicious is that their impact spreads far beyond the direct victims and their families. Because hate crimes threaten everybody who worships, looks, speaks, or shares the same beliefs as the victims. And if the bias against these groups is not condemned by law enforcement, distrust and resentment thrive in the victims’ communities, undermining efforts to maintain peace and security. When it goes unacknowledged, a hate crime is like a cancer that spreads until it has killed off the healthy cells and invaded the entire body. Ultimately, the toxicity of these crimes threatens an entire society, undermining core beliefs and constitutional freedoms. Police chiefs have the opportunity to control, if not entirely cure, this sickness. But the first step—accurate reporting—is often overlooked, which is a serious problem since it is impossible to prevent what is not known or admitted to exist. Though anyone can become the victim of a hate crime, reports indicate that the most frequent targets are African Americans; Jews; and, increasingly, Muslims, as well as individuals who are thought to belong to these groups. It is estimated that there were more than 700 incidents targeting people who appeared to be Arab in just the nine weeks following 9/11.8 In addition, the NCVS findings indicate that the number of crimes motivated by religious bias have more than doubled from 10 percent between 2003 and 2006 to 21 percent between 2007 and 2011.9 Members of the LGBT community are often victimized as well. Crimes motivated by bias against Hispanics have also risen, according to research by BJS.10 The physically and mentally disabled are vulnerable, too. Nobody is truly immune.

Nobody Is Immune

Haters and extremists are a varied lot, and they may hold grudges against any group or community, including law enforcement. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 30 police officers were shot, 14 of them fatally, by domestic extremist groups between 2009 and 2013.11 White supremacist and anti-government extremist groups were responsible for all but one of these shootings. On the other hand, about 18 percent of crimes reported as racially motivated in 2007 resulted from anti-white bias.12 There are also “patriot” groups that advocate violence against people whose political views differ from theirs, and individuals who attack people whom the attackers think belong to a community they despise, whether or not that is true. A former Ku Klux Klan leader who killed three people outside a Jewish Community Center and retirement home in April 2014, was targeting Jews, but the victims were actually Methodists and Catholics.13 In 2012, a gunman attempted to kill all the members of the Family Research Council, a conservative group that opposes gay marriage.14 It might be ironically said that hate crime is an “equal opportunity” crime.

It Was Only a Bar Fight–Or Was It?

One challenge to accurate reporting is that many officers have not been trained to recognize a hate crime for what it is. They may not understand the victims’ culture or even their language, much less know how to ask the right questions, interpret body language, or read between the lines in their statements. Even if the victim belonged to a frequently targeted group, it may be difficult to establish the motive.

In fact, the victims themselves often do not report these crimes. Twenty-four percent of those who responded to a hate crime survey between 2007 and 2011 said they did not make a report because they didn’t think the police could or would help.15 Many people in the LGBT community feel that police sympathize with their tormentors, and new immigrants not only fear law enforcement and deportation, but often have language barriers. Moreover, some individuals simply don’t have the mental ability to make a report, and others aren’t aware of their rights or of victims’ support services.

Perhaps, though, the most compelling reason for not contacting the police is fear. Realizing that these incidents are not likely to be reported as hate crimes and that the arrest rate is low not only robs the victims of incentive, it instills fear of reprisal.

Youthful Offenders Looking for Fun

Another challenging characteristic of bias-driven attacks is that the majority of them are not committed by members of organized hate or extremist groups, but by young males who commit the hate crimes “just for fun.” A National Criminal Justice Reference Services (NCJRS) study based on 169 cases from the Boston, Massachusetts, Police Department indicated that most hate crimes were carried out for the thrill, many times without the strong bias that would allow easy categorization of the crime. Youthful offenders often told police they were just bored and looking for some fun.16

An example of this is the group of high school students who killed Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant, in Suffolk County, New York, in 2008. Several of the students admitted to the police that they had been roaming the streets looking for “Mexicans” to beat up.17 After Lucero’s death, many Latino men came forward to report that they had been the victims of similar attacks.

Tragically, better hate crime reporting, both from victims and law enforcement, may have prevented this tragedy. An investigation by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division into Suffolk County Police Department practices regarding hate crimes found that earlier attempts to report similar attacks were often inaccurately classified as reports of “youth disturbances,” which were not filed as criminal reports, and long wait times for police response after violent assaults. Following Lucero’s murder, the DOJ made recommendations to Suffolk County Police to help the department improve relations with their Latino community, which would lead to improved hate crime reporting.18

Murder Is Murder – What Difference Does Classification Make?

Another factor that can suppress reporting is that some law enforcement professionals are indifferent to the motive for a crime: an assault is an assault, a victim is a victim. Whether the crime was an act of anger or driven by hatred for the victim’s religion may not seem to make any difference. If he or she believes that the incident will not be prosecuted as a hate crime, the officer may not feel it’s worth the extra paperwork.

In a California Attorney General’s Civil Rights Commission Hate Crime report, it was noted that several law enforcement agencies expressed confusion as to whether youth gang violence should be reported as a gang-related crime or a hate crime, even when the act meets the criteria for a hate crime.19

Finally, on a leadership level, police chiefs are often reluctant to publicize a crime that could alarm the community and give the town a “black eye.” But studies have found that underreporting does not reduce fear. Members of the victimized group are well aware that they were targeted, and the crime not being recognized as a hate crime leads their community to believe their safety is not important to law enforcement.

Why Label It a Hate Crime?

If crimes are not recognized for their hatred, hate groups can become emboldened, feeling that their sentiments are condoned or even shared. Therefore, instead of abating, tensions rise, sometimes leading to retaliatory crimes. This will negatively affect the town’s reputation much more than accurate reports of the initial crime.

There’s also not a lot of incentive for departments to report these crimes, and, since the FBI’s UCR reporting program is voluntary, many departments don’t bother, assuming that if the crime is prosecuted, there is no need to add a hate crime label.

In fact, though U.S. federal law requires that all states collect hate crime data, they are not required to report it to the UCR. While 18,000 agencies in the United States do make some reports, many don’t. Some states, including Indiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico, do not even have a UCR program, so agencies in those states must report directly to the FBI, an extra step that many do not take.20

As a result, the UCR data system is of little help to authorities who investigate and track hate crimes. This is a significant problem because, if the authorities do not know how many hate crimes are committed, they cannot get an accurate picture of whether hate crime laws are effective, which can lead to fewer resources allocated to combatting hate crimes.

Reporting Can Lead to Prevention

Reporting these crimes can lead to positive outcomes. An example of how reporting can lead to a positive outcome can be drawn from the unfortunate shooting deaths of six members of the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012. The incident was not only reported as a hate crime, it was highly publicized by the media, leading 26 senators to request that the UCR program be expanded to include tracking of hate crimes against Hindus, Arabs, and Sikhs.21

Similarly, a series of attacks against Latinos in Patchogue, New York, in 2008, and the previously mentioned murder of the Ecuadorean immigrant by young men who were targeting “Mexicans,” jolted the mayor into action and moved the townspeople to work together to prevent bigotry. When crimes are characterized as hate based, they’re more likely to get attention and promote action.

Another consequence of not designating hate crimes as such is that it minimizes the egregious nature of these crimes, which are often more vicious than other assaults.

The NCVS study showed that hate crimes are much more likely to be violent than other crimes. Between 2007 and 2011, about 92 percent of hate crimes collected by the survey were violent, up from 84 percent between 2003 and 2006, and the FBI statistics from 2011 show that just 13 percent of all other crimes were violent.22 Experts also note that hate crimes are often characterized by extreme violence, with many murder victims showing signs of suffering “overkill.” Studies have also shown that victims of hate crimes may suffer from more psychological distress—depression, stress, anxiety, and anger—compared to victims of other crimes.23

We Can Change This Underreporting: Practical Solutions

Clearly, action is needed. There are effective strategies that not only prevent these crimes, but also build the trust of the community, which is vital for effective policing in all areas of law enforcement. The following are some activities that have been proven to be very helpful.

Accurate and Proactive Reporting: When an illegal incident does occur and there is sufficient reason to believe that it was motivated by bias, it can and should be reported as a hate crime—even if the perpetrators were not charged or convicted of this type of crime. The standard for reporting is not the same as that for conviction. In states that have UCR programs, the FBI offers training on how to collect and report hate crime data.

Community Policing: The most effective way to reduce hate crimes is to adopt the principles of community policing: proactive, problem-solving approaches, including collaboration with community, religious, and business leaders and with social services, schools, and other organizations. Positive relationships with the community will encourage its members to report hate crimes and minimize the chances of retaliatory crimes. Active participation in town halls and other meetings can provide valuable information as well.

Departmental Support and Training: Creating a culture that prioritizes the identification, investigation, and reporting of hate crimes will go a long way in improving both the reporting and the enforcement of hate crime laws. Issuing directives, holding meetings, offering training, distributing information, and posting reminders are all helpful.

Outreach to Targeted Groups: Establishing relations with diverse communities is vital to earning their trust and encouraging reports. Attending meetings and setting up programs such as Coffee with a Cop encourages cooperation, and increasing police presence in the community lowers the incidence of these crimes.

Establishing Partnerships: One of the most effective community policing strategies is establishing working relationships with neighboring law enforcement, prosecutors, social service, and others. Working with the media can also be very helpful in the prevention, apprehension, and prosecution of hate crimes.

Special Units and Multi-Agency Task Forces: If resources permit, an agency can create a specialized hate crime unit. Another option is to designate a particular officer to work in this area who can build up experience and be a resource for other officers in the field. Some agencies have teamed up with other agencies to develop a multi-agency task force.

Language Training: The hiring or training of officers who understand the language and culture of immigrant communities can greatly increase not only the reporting of hate crimes, but also the cooperation of these groups.

Public Awareness Programs: Agencies can sponsor programs or special activities to publicly condemn hate crimes and support efforts to prevent them. Many tools and programs are available through the Not In Our Town: Working Together for Safe, Inclusive Communities initiative and the Not In Our Town (NIOT) program.

Youth Programs: Many youth do not understand that bullying, racial slurs, and vandalism are hate-fueled incidents and are not aware of the consequences of such actions. Law enforcement can work with schools to address this problem and encourage youth to report crimes, participate in crime prevention groups, or participate in programs such as ride-alongs and police youth academies.

Reporting Hotlines and Webpages: Information can be disseminated by setting up a webpage on the identification, prevention, or reporting of hate crimes. Alternatively, agencies can create and publicize an online reporting webpage and telephone hotline.

Monitoring Hate Groups and Activities: While it is important to be mindful of civil liberties, keeping an eye on hate groups and their activities, including lawful ones, not only demonstrates opposition to their bias, thereby reassuring their target community, but can help law enforcement identify potential threats and allocate resources. Even if they are legal, some activities are incendiary and do need to be reported or, at least, monitored.

Victim Services: Having accessible, effective victim services available will help people feel comfortable enough to come forward and report a crime. Additionally, a good victim’s advocate or representative will walk a person through the process, allowing law enforcement to focus on investigating the crime.

Training and Knowledge Resources: Tool kits, victim resources, training, and information are available from components of the Department of Justice, including the COPS Office, the Office of Victims of Crime, and the FBI, as well as the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other organizations.

It’s Time to Act

There are many strategies law enforcement can employ, but perhaps the most effective, as well as the most basic, is the prioritizing of efforts to prevent hate crimes. Why is this so important? Because, although a hate crime is reported almost every hour, nearly 25 times more hate crimes are estimated to occur.24 These crimes damage not only the victims, but the whole community. They are an assault upon all of society and the values people hold dear, undercutting their ability to worship, believe, or assemble as they want; to express their cultural beliefs; or to feel equal in the eyes of the law.

As U.S. President Obama said in his December, 2014 remarks about the value of communities and law enforcement working together to build trust,


When any part of the American family does not feel like it is being treated fairly, that’s a problem for all of us. It’s not just a problem for a particular community or a particular demographic. It means that we are not as strong as a country as we can be. And when applied to the criminal justice system, it means we’re not as effective in fighting crime as we could be.25 ♦

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1 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), “Incidents and Offenses,” 2014 Hate Crime Statistics, (accessed April 28, 2016).

2 FBI, “Hate Crime by Jurisdiction,” 2013 Hate Crime Statistics, (accessed April 6, 2016). 

3 Ibid.

4 Nathan Sandholtz, Lynn Langston, and Michael Planty, Hate Crime Victimization, 2003–2011, Special Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 2013), (accessed April 6, 2016).

5 BJS, “Data Collection: National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS),” (accessed April 6, 2016).

6 Sandholtz, Langston, and Planty, Hate Crime Victimization, 2003–2011, 5.

7 Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, 28 U.S.C. § 534, amended 2009.

8 District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia Advisory Committees to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Civil Rights Concerns in the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Area in the Aftermath of the September 11, 2001, Tragedies (Washington, D.C.: June 2003), Chapter 6, (accessed April 6, 2016).

9 Sandholtz, Langston, and Planty, Hate Crime Victimization, 2003–2011, 1.

10 Meagan Meuchel Wilson, Hate Crime Victimization, 2004–2012 - Statistical Tables (Washington, D.C.: DOJ, BJS, 2014), 6, (accessed April 6, 2016). 

11 Alyn Beck, “Officers Down: Right-Wing Extremists Attacking Police At Growing Rate,” ADL Blog, June 9, 2014, (accessed April 6, 2016).

12 FBI, “Victims,” Hate Crime Statistics, 2007, (accessed April 6, 2016).

13 Carey Gillam, “Ex-Ku Klux Klan Leader Charged in Kansas Jewish Center Killings,” Reuters, April 14, 2014, (accessed April 6, 2014).

14 Carol Cratty and Michael Pearson, “DC Shooter Wanted to Kill as Many as Possible, Prosecutors Say,” CNN, February 7, 2013, (accessed April 6, 2016).

15 Sandholtz, Langston, and Planty, Hate Crime Victimization, 2003–2011, 6.

16 Jack McDevitt, Jack Levin, and Susan Bennett, “Hate Crimes Offenders: An Expanded Typology,” Journal of Social Issues 58, no. 2 (2002). 

17 Naimah Jabali-Nash, “Four New York Teens Sentenced in 2008 Hate Crime,” CBS News, August 26, 2010, (accessed April 6, 2016).

18 DOJ, Civil Rights Division, “United States Agrees to Comprehensive Settlement with Suffolk County Police Department to Resolve Investigation of Discriminatory Policing Against Latinos,” press release, December 3, 2013, (accessed April 6, 2016). 

19 Bill Lockyer, Reporting Hate Crimes: The California Attorney General’s Civil Rights Commission on Hate Crimes Final Report, April 7, 2016).

20 FBI, “State Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program Contacts,” (accessed April 7, 2016).

21 Sandholtz, Langston, and Planty, Hate Crime Victimization, 2003–2011, 4.

22 Gregory M. Herek, J. Roy Gillis, and Jeanine C. Cogan, “Psychological Sequelae if Hate Crime Victimization Among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adults,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (1999); Jack McDevitt et al., “Consequences for Victims A Comparison of Bias-and Non-Bias-Motivated Assaults,” American Behavioral Scientist 45, no. 4 (2001): 697–793.

23 Ibid.

24 “Executive Summary,” Confronting the New Faces of Hate: Hate Crimes in America 2009 (The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights/The Leadership Conference Education Fund, 2013), (accessed April 8, 2016). 

25 The White House, “Remarks by the President after Meeting with Elected Officials, Community and Faith Leaders, and Law Enforcement Officials on How Communities and Law Enforcement Can Work Together to Build Trust to Strengthen Neighborhoods Across the Country,” press release, December 01, 2014, (accessed April 8, 2016).