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‘Consistently Inconsistent’: Thousands of law enforcement agencies fail to provide hate crime data to the FBI

The FBI released its annual report on hate crime statistics this week. But the latest numbers fail to capture the scope of the problem even more miserably than in previous years.

The report, mandated under the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 (HCSA), is compiled from the voluntary submissions of the 18,000 federal, state, university, city and tribal law enforcement authorities across the country. The numbers are aggregated by states, cities, counties, and colleges and universities.

Yet this year, especially, very little reliable data can be found on the full range of hate crimes against people – based on their race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender and gender identity.

For the past 30 years, the FBI has released its hate crime report in the fall. And because the agency has integrated hate crime reporting into its overall Uniform Crime Reporting system (UCR) since 1991, the report can usually be compared to other crime data to analyze national trends.

Yet from the very beginning, the report has been far from comprehensive.

The voluntary nature of the program has resulted in reporting that has been consistently inconsistent. For example, about 3,500 agencies did not report any data to the FBI in the 2020 report – including 10 cities with populations over 100,000. And another 60 police departments in cities with populations over 100,000 affirmatively reported zero hate crimes.

“Some jurisdictions fail to report hate crime statistics, while others claim there are no hate crimes in their community – a fact that would be welcome, if true,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a congressional hearing last month.

The 2021 HCSA data is even more drastically incomplete than previous years’ data, to the extent that any comparisons between last year and previous years are almost meaningless.

The lack of compliance by law enforcement agencies is more significant than in past years because 2021 was the first year that the FBI required every agency to report all crime, including hate crimes, through its National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).

Although the FBI set out a five-year timeline and provided technical assistance and funding for the transition, many jurisdictions were either unable or unwilling to report through the new system. This breakdown has resulted in dramatically incomplete reporting: There are 3,300 fewer participating agencies than in 2020, including agencies in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix and, essentially, the entire states of Florida and California. Ninety million fewer Americans than in 2020 are covered in the 2021 report.

Responding to hate crime

For the Southern Poverty Law Center, the hate crime report has never been about numbers alone. The report does help detect trends, but the impact and harm of these crimes on victims and their communities can never be reduced to mere numbers. Behind each and every one of the reported bias-motivated criminal incidents in the FBI report is a victim of violence, intimidation or vandalism – people targeted for no other reason than their race, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation.

To adequately counter hate crimes and mitigate their impacts, these essential questions must be addressed: What support is provided to individual victims and their communities? How prepared is the first responder who arrives at the scene of a hate crime? What training has been provided so law enforcement can effectively respond? And, especially important, what work is being done in the community to address prejudice and prevent bias-motivated crimes in the first place?

Over time, the hate crime report has sparked many improvements in the way police departments across the country address hate crimes – because in order to report hate crime data, agencies must also train their officers on how to identify and respond to bias-motivated violence. 

But much more is needed.

The SPLC supports the FBI’s transition to the new reporting system. When complete, NIBRS will result in more detailed and comprehensive data. That’s a step forward, because it’s impossible to address our nation’s hate crime problem without accurate data. A more complete data set will help us as a nation to design targeted prevention, training and response initiatives. It will also help us allocate appropriate resources to meet the threats.

The disappointing 2021 report prompts questions about what steps the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI must take to improve reporting, how they will expand training and education on the community impact of bias-motivated crimes, and, most important, what active efforts they and other federal agencies are undertaking to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place.

The SPLC has some policy recommendations for the Biden administration and Congress:

  • Improve hate crime reporting
    • Congress and the Biden administration should support mandatory hate crime reporting by all law enforcement agencies.
    • Until legislation requiring reporting can be enacted, federal funds to law enforcement agencies should be conditioned on credible hate crime reporting or meaningful community hate crime prevention and awareness initiatives.
  • Enforce hate crime laws
  • Expand community-based prevention initiatives
    • To fulfill the full promise of the White House’s successful United We Stand Summit against hate and extremism in September, the Biden administration should work with Congress to ensure adequate funding (SPLC Action Fund) for the wide range of programs and initiatives announced at the summit.
    • Federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, and the Department of Health and Human Services, should establish and fund programs to build community resiliency against hate, to inoculate against extremism, and to empower adults to help steer young people away from violent extremism.
  • Teach truth
    • As several states, particularly in the South, enact laws restricting teaching about racism and other painful truths, much more needs to be done to teach young people unvarnished facts about American history – both good and bad – so that we can learn lessons from the past to shape a better future. The SPLC’s Learning for Justice program is a model for needed resources in our nation’s schools.
  • Improve government response to domestic extremism 
    • Though most hate crimes are not committed by individuals affiliated with an organized hate group, the Biden administration and Congress should continue to closely track and assess the nature and magnitude of domestic extremism and fund resilience and digital literacy initiatives as well as government and academic research on best evidence-based prevention programs.
    • The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs must continue to address white supremacy and extremism for active-duty service members and veterans. Extremism in the military must be addressed at every stage: recruitment; expanding and clarifying prohibitions against advocating for, or involvement in, supremacist or extremist activity for active-duty personnel; and more extensive efforts to help veterans transition into civilian life, including counseling, mental health and social welfare services.
  • Promote online safety and hold tech and social media companies accountable
    • Tech companies should create and enforce policies and terms of service to ensure that social media networks, payment service providers and other internet-based services do not provide platforms where hateful activities and extremism can thrive.
    • Consistent with the First Amendment and privacy considerations, the Biden administration and Congress should adopt rules and regulations to ensure that tech companies increase accountability and transparency and comply with civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination.

When these measures are adopted and more accurate data becomes available, the U.S. will have the tools it needs to effectively address its hate crime problem.

Picture at top: The FBI’s annual report on hate crime statistics, compiled from the voluntary submissions of federal, state, university, city and tribal law enforcement authorities across the country, fails to capture the scope of America’s hate crime problem because the numbers are grossly underreported. (Credit: SPLC)