Editor’s Note: Maya Berry is the executive director of the Arab American Institute. Kai Wiggins is a policy analyst at the Arab American Institute. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The federal government’s 2017 hate crime statistics are out, and they show a disturbing trend: Last year, as in 2016 and 2015 before, hate crimes were on the rise. But what the data fail to show is perhaps even more alarming, and further demonstrates the need for an improved response to hate crime.
According to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation released this week, the number of reported hate crime incidents in 2017 was up 17% over 2016 totals, representing the first consecutive three-year annual increase and the largest single-year increase since 2001, when hate crimes targeting Arab-Americans and American Muslims, and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim, surged in the aftermath of 9/11.
We know that in 2017, as in 2016 and 2015 before, the increase coincided with burgeoning racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The FBI’s information shows that crimes motivated by race or ethnicity, which rose 18% in 2017, accounted for a majority of all incidents reported, with hate crimes specifically targeting African-Americans representing the greatest share, while anti-Arab hate crimes increased 100%. As for crimes motivated by religion, anti-Jewish incidents surged yet again last year, this time over 37%, while anti-Muslim incidents, which stabilized after two years of dramatic rise, remained well above historical averages from before the 2016 election cycle.
But despite the reported increase, we know that many incidents, including some of the most horrific acts of bias-motivated violence committed last year, are somehow missing from the official statistics.
The murder of Heather Heyer is missing. According to the FBI data, the Charlottesville, Virginia, Police Department reported no hate crimes between July and September of last year. But on August 12, 2017, Heyer was killed in Charlottesville when a man plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally. An additional 35 people were injured, and the accused driver, James Alex Fields Jr., is awaiting trial on federal hate crime charges. He pleaded not guilty.
The killings of Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche are missing. According to FBI statistics, no hate crime murders were reported in Oregon last year. But on May 26, 2017, Best and Namkai-Meche were killed on a train in Portland when a man fatally stabbed them and wounded Micah David-Cole Fletcher after they confronted him for harassing two teenage passengers with anti-Muslim and racist slurs. The accused attacker, Jeremy Joseph Christian, was indicted on the state hate crime charge of “second degree intimidation” and pleaded not guilty.
The murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla is missing. According to FBI statistics, no hate crimes were reported last year in Olathe, Kansas. But on February 22, 2017, Kuchibhotla was killed at a bar in Olathe when a man shot him because of his perceived national origin. His friend Alok Madasani was also targeted but survived the shooting, as did a man named Ian Grillot who attempted to intercede. The shooter, Adam Purinton, was convicted on federal hate crime charges.
While all three cases were prosecuted as hate crimes, this detail is not relevant to whether they should have been reported in the FBI data. According to federal guidance on hate crime reporting, it is the responsibility of law enforcement officials responding to an incident to determine whether there was any indication that it was bias-motivated. After a secondary review, and regardless of whether any hate crime charges are brought, the relevant agency may then report the incident as a hate crime through the Uniform Crime Reporting, or UCR, system, which the FBI uses to publish its annual report.
We should also note that negligence on the part of responding law enforcement officials is not necessarily the cause of these apparent omissions. While the Portland Police Bureau was not immediately available for comment, the Olathe Police Department confirmed it had reported six hate crime incidents, including the murder of Kuchibhotla, which was recorded as an “Anti-Other Ethnicity/National Origin” incident, to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Because the Olathe Police Department and agencies from other jurisdictions submit hate crime data using an antiquated reporting format, the KBI said it was unable to aggregate these incidents into the data collections submitted to the FBI. As for Charlottesville, the department did not return a recent request for comment but had told us in a September statement that the Heyer case and others relating to the white nationalist rally would be reported as hate crimes, but it appears they were not finalized in time for inclusion in the official state or federal data.
In some states, including Virginia and Oregon, state UCR programs publish annual hate crime statistics. Like the FBI statistics, Virginia’s annual hate crime report contains no data relating to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. However, and in seeming contradiction with the federal data, state-level statistics from Oregon include two hate crime murder offenses reported in Multnomah County. But without additional information, we are unable to determine whether either of these offenses corresponds to the May 26 stabbing.
Additional findings from state-level statistics raise questions about the FBI data. In advance of this week’s FBI release, the Arab American Institute collected UCR hate crime data from 27 states and the District of Columbia. Based on these state-level statistics, we predicted a significant nationwide increase reported in 2017 federal statistics. While the overall prediction was correct, much like in the case of Oregon, we found some notable discrepancies. According to the FBI data, just 48 incidents were reported in Maryland in 2017, but state-level statistics indicate a far greater total of 183. Similar disparities occurred in multiple states, including Indiana. While FBI statistics contained no data from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, according to state UCR data, the department reported 44 incidents in 2017.
The federal data, as aggregated by the Arab American Institute and also the Anti-Defamation League, reveal that nearly 100 jurisdictions representing at least 100,000 people reported zero hate crimes in 2017. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which has reported as many as 73 incidents annually in recent years and represents over 1.6 million people, is one example. Statewide, just five incidents were reported in Nevada in 2017.
But the problem of questionable or underreported data is not limited to any one state. Hawaii does not even participate in the national hate crime statistics program, and aside from Nevada, an additional 11 participating states had fewer than 10 agencies report hate crime incidents in 2017. Many of these states, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi, have dark histories of racial and ethnic violence but have not enacted sufficient legislation to address hate crime. If all states offered inclusive protections in their hate crime laws, required hate crime reporting and data collection from law enforcement, and authorized comprehensive police training on investigating and reporting hate crime incidents, maybe then we would have more accurate and representative federal statistics.
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A renewed commitment from the federal government would also help. In order to improve the data collected under the Hate Crime Statistics Act and published in the FBI’s annual report, Congress should pass legislation that provides law enforcement with incentives for hate crime reporting and ties federal funding for state or local agencies to the provision of accurate data.
Until then, we will continue to highlight what the data show, and bring what’s missing to light.