Arjun Singh Sethi: Hate violence is intensifying, but government isn't documenting its full scope
Legislation to enforce mandatory reporting by police to a national database is a necessary step, he writes
Editor’s Note: Arjun Singh Sethi is a civil rights writer, lawyer, and teacher based in Washington. He is currently director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition, and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and Vanderbilt University Law School, where he teaches courses on policing, surveillance and counter terrorism. You can follow him on Twitter @arjunsethi81.
Hate is now a part of daily life for many Americans.
In the first 48 hours following the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented more than 200 incidents of hateful harassment, intimidation and assault.
Since then, violence has proliferated. In suburban Pittsburgh, an Indian-American man was hospitalized for facial cuts and swelling after being insulted and assaulted. A Muslim police officer and her teenage son were reportedly threatened in New York City. Houses of worship, schools and even libraries have been vandalized.
But although hate violence is intensifying, the government hasn’t figured out how to document its insidious reach.
That’s because reporting of hate crimes is voluntary, not mandatory. Under the current system, the FBI merely encourages local law enforcement to report hate crimes to a national database. There is no penalty for failing to report. This creates gaps in reporting, which significantly undermines the ability of law enforcement, civil society and affected communities to effectively curb hate violence.
A recent study by the Associated Press, for example, found that roughly 17% of all city and county law enforcement agencies nationwide didn’t submit a single hate crime report from 2009 to 2014. FBI statistics on hate crime violence are thus grossly under-inclusive, as it defies logic to assume none of those localities experienced hate-driven violence.
Data from the Department of Justice spanning a nine-year period from 2003 to 2011 suggests that hate violence in America is 25 to 40 times higher than FBI totals suggest, likely exceeding more than 250,000 incidents a year.
Police officers’ lack of knowledge about and contact with certain communities impacted by hate violence compounds the problem. For instance, although the FBI began asking law enforcement in 2015 to report hate crimes committed against Sikhs, Arabs, Hindus and other communities, local officials never received detailed federal training about the beliefs, customs and reasons that these communities are often targeted. Police officers can’t accurately report hate crimes if they don’t know who’s being attacked and why.
Improved hate crime data would help curb hate violence because many continue to deny its existence and severity. Stronger data would also allow law enforcement, civil society and vulnerable communities to better target their outreach. Law enforcement would be better positioned to investigate and respond to acts of hate violence; civil society could more proactively engage in dialogue and education in areas with rising tensions; and vulnerable neighborhoods could fashion community policing programs and know-your-rights campaigns to better protect against violence and intimidation.
Yet even with mandatory reporting and training, gaps would still exist because many communities are afraid to report. Muslims, Arabs and South Asians in America live under a specter of criminalization and surveillance. Counter-terrorism programs and policies – such as suspicious activity reporting, watchlists, countering violent extremism initiatives and Justice Department profiling guidelines – routinely single them out as inherently suspect. Black and immigrant communities, meanwhile, live under the specter of profiling, mass incarceration and deportation. These communities often see police as occupiers rather than protectors and think twice before seeking their help.
There are still others who don’t report because they’re afraid they will be accused of fabrication or face intimidation. Trolling and cyberbullying, often anonymous, have become major civil rights issues for vulnerable communities.
To improve data collection, states should pass laws requiring local law enforcement to report hate crimes and proscribe penalties for those who don’t. The federal government, meanwhile, should incentivize reporting through a onetime appropriation to local law enforcement for the sole purpose of improving hate crime reporting, including education about impacted communities. Narrowly tailored legislative language is critical in order to avoid further militarizing the police. The lessons of Ferguson and Baltimore must not be forgotten.
Anonymous reporting mechanisms like private and encrypted telephone and email hotlines should also be created so that victims who fear surveillance and incarceration are more likely to report. This is also important for LGBT victims, who despite experiencing a high incidence of hate crimes, often don’t report for fear of outing themselves to employers, friends and family, and are often vulnerable to police violence as well.
These hotlines should have data retention limits, so that victims are confident in the security of their communications. Legislation forthcoming in the next Congress touches on the creation of such hotlines.
In addition to improving data collection, the government needs to take more seriously and allocate greater resources to combating right-wing violent extremism.
These groups and their members have been emboldened by last month’s elections and continue to pose the greatest terrorist threat to America. In addition, localities should create emergency preparedness task forces to more effectively respond to hate violence whenever it occurs. These task forces should be able to meet the psychological, medical and safety needs of affected communities. Because hate violence terrorizes entire communities, it requires community-wide interventions to meaningfully mitigate the harm.
Still these measures alone won’t solve the scourge of hate violence, which is often a symptom of bias and stigma fostered by the government and popular society. We must end government policies that criminalize and profile communities of color.
Criminalization and profiling intensify hate violence because they reinforce narratives of privilege and prejudice. They also cause impacted communities to recoil and withdraw, making them more likely to be re-criminalized and targeted by hate violence. We must also push back against those in the media who exclude these communities or diminish them through discriminatory tropes and caricatures.
Curbing hate violence will undeniably be difficult. There is widespread fear that the incoming Department of Justice will both de-emphasize enforcement of civil rights laws and intensify programs that criminalize and profile communities of color. There will also be those ready to scapegoat these communities for financial and political gain. Reform requires resilience, struggle and better information on our everyday realities. We’ll need all three to protect our communities in the tumultuous years ahead.