Top Lesson From Hate Crimes Beat: We Have a Lot to Learn

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Did the jump in reports of hate crimes after the election of Donald Trump indicate an increase in such crimes, or did the reports reflect an increased willingness by victims to come forward? ProPublica studied that question and came up with a distressing answer: Nobody knows for sure. Hate crimes are so poorly tracked in America, there’s no way to undertake the kind of national data analysis commonly used in other areas, from bank robberies to virus outbreaks. There is a vast discrepancy between the hate crimes numbers gathered by the FBI from police jurisdictions around the country and the estimate of hate crime victims in annual surveys by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The FBI counts 6,121 hate crimes in 2016, and the BJS estimates 250,000 hate crimes a year.

While the law requires the Department of Justice to report hate crime statistics, local and state police departments aren’t bound to report their numbers to the FBI — and many don’t. And hate crime laws vary by state, with some including sexual orientation as a protected class of victims and some not. Five states have no hate crime statute. ProPublica said it has learned that more than half of hate crime victims don’t file reports to the police; many police officers get little training about how to handle hate crimes; only 12 states have statutes requiring this type of instruction at police academies; there are widespread discrepancies in what local police consider a hate crime; last year, almost 90 percent of local law enforcement agencies reported having zero hate crimes in their communities; and even if hate crimes are investigated, they aren’t always prosecuted. In Texas, just eight of 981 potentially bias-motivated crimes reported to police from 2010 to 2015 ended in convictions.

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