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Since the start of 2019, in places across the United States, there have been no fewer than five killings in which victims’ race, ethnicity or national origin appears to have been a factor.
Arthur Martunovich allegedly walked into a Chinese restaurant in New York City in January and killed three men with a hammer. Police said he later explained his motive: “Chinese men are awful.”
On Feb. 23, José Muñoz, 25, was shot and killed in the lobby of an Olive Garden in Louisville, Kentucky. The suspect in the killing allegedly used racial slurs when a child in Muñoz’s party at the restaurant bumped into him twice. Muñoz’s family insists he was targeted because of his ethnicity as a Mexican immigrant.
On March 6, scores of mourners gathered on the campus of Indiana University to protest the killing of Mustafa Ayoubi, a 32-year-old graduate of the school.
He’d been shot and killed in February in Indianapolis, following a road rage incident. Witnesses told police the suspect yelled slurs about Islam and told Ayoubi to “go back to your country.”
Ayoubi’s family wants police to investigate the murder as a hate crime, but Indiana has no hate crime law.
Two months into 2018, there had been at least five killings that might qualify as hate crimes. In 2017, according to the FBI, 15 people died in suspected hate crimes.
Hate — crimes, speech and the violent mingling of the two — remains a stubborn and confounding American problem.
The House of Representatives recently passed a resolution condemning hate speech, but not before Democrats and Republicans traded angry claims about who was most often guilty of the worst kinds of hate speech.
The actor Jussie Smollett reported being the victim of a hate crime, only to be charged by the authorities with inventing the account. Smollett has said he’s innocent, but the potential hoax has set off the latest furor concerning the reliability of victim accounts in a highly politicized environment.
Meanwhile, just this month, the Anti-Defamation League put out a report saying that efforts by social media platforms like Twitter to ban certain users who engaged in hate speech had the unintended effect of driving up the popularity of sites like Gab, the chat forum widely used by white supremacists. The fear, the ADL suggested, was that the communities forming on sites such as Gab could lead to real violence. The man charged in the massacre at the synagogue last year in Pittsburgh allegedly posted his hatred of Jews and immigrants on Gab.
We thought it an appropriate moment, then, to offer a kind of primer to our Documenting Hate project, a partnership with more than 160 newsrooms now in its third year.
What Is a Hate Crime?
The FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” That means that it is a crime — such as a robbery, assault or vandalism — that investigators determine was motivated entirely or partially by prejudice.
How Are Hate Crimes Defined by Law?
First, there are laws that allow for the prosecution of hate crimes.
There are numerous federal laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. These laws allow the government to prosecute suspects for hate crimes and to increase penalties.
Many states have their own hate crime laws, and some of them cover additional categories, such as nationality or the homeless. Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming have no such state laws.
But even if states have laws on the books, it doesn’t mean they’re effective; for example, Utah’s bias crime statute was called “worthless” by the Salt Lake County district attorney. (Last week, the Legislature voted to beef up the law, and the governor is expected to sign the bill.)
And some states only cover some protected classes; for example, some states don’t include LGBTQ victims as a protected class in their hate crime statutes.
Then there are laws that define how to track hate crimes. The Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 established the collection of hate crime data by the Department of Justice. Some state hate crime laws require data collection, while others don’t. These crimes don’t need to have been prosecuted as hate crimes, they simply need to have evidence that they were motivated by bias.
How Many Hate Crimes Happen Every Year?
The short answer is: We don’t really know, because the data is so poor.
The hate crime data collection process hasn’t been entirely effective, in part because local police departments aren’t required to send their numbers to the federal government. As a result, some of them don’t send anything. Hawaii, for example, doesn’t report at all.
The FBI reported more than 7,100 hate crime incidents in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. But the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducts a hate crimes survey and estimates there could be up to 250,000 hate crimes a year.
Even when police send numbers to the FBI, the data is sometimes questionable. Eighty-seven percent of police agencies that sent their data to the FBI in 2017 reported zero hate crimes. After reviewing more than 2,000 police reports, our partner BuzzFeed News found 15 hate-related assaults in 10 cities that reported no hate crimes to the FBI.
And in many states, local police send hate crime data to state agencies, who then submit the data to the FBI, but we found cases were this process did not function properly.
“The current statistics are a complete and utter joke,” Roy Austin, former deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, told ProPublica.
Why Aren’t Police Doing a Better Job Tracking and Investigating Hate Crimes?
First, there are missing cases that police records don’t capture, because more than half of victims don’t report to police. That’s due to a variety of reasons, such as mistrust in police, a fear of not being taken seriously or uncertainty if they experienced a crime.
We know that some police departments don’t send any data to the FBI, or claim to have no hate crimes. Another issue is that some police departments don’t do a good job investigating and tracking hate crimes. We’ve found some victims who argue that the police don’t take hate crimes seriously enough, sometimes resisting taking a report or lacking the basic knowledge about what box to check on a police report. We found that some police departments marked crimes as anti-heterosexual when they were actually anti-gay or not even hate crimes. That means that sometimes, even if police are tracking hate crimes, the data they send to the FBI is flawed.
Another key problem is that police training on hate crimes varies very widely. Only a dozen states have statutes requiring police academies to provide hate crimes training, and even if recruits do get instruction, it’s sometimes for as little as a half an hour.
To improve hate crime tracking, “You have to have a combination of training, executive leadership, and some kind of infrastructure that is sustained and continuing,” Brian Levin, a hate crimes researcher, told ProPublica.
What About Prosecutions?
Hate crimes are notoriously difficult to prosecute, because attorneys must prove the defendant’s intent was based on bias. Adding hate crime charges can introduce layers of complexity to otherwise straightforward cases of assault or vandalism. A ProPublica investigation found that of the nearly 1,000 hate crime cases reported to police in Texas from 2010 to 2015, fewer than 10 were successfully prosecuted.
Some cities, such as Boston and New York, have dedicated bias crime units that provide expertise and added scrutiny to hate crime cases in order to build evidence for the prosecution. But in many places, it’s usually up to local police to investigate these crimes.
Sometimes, the FBI will send investigators in order to prosecute cases in federal court. But a News21 analysis found that just 100 hate crimes were prosecuted as federal crimes from January 2010 to July 2018.