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Rare Track Record: NYPD’s History Chronicling Hate Crimes

For decades, a hate crimes task force has been on the case in New York. But even that sustained effort may not be catching all crimes.

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As of Dec. 18, 2016, there had been 373 hate crimes reported to the New York Police Department. Crimes against Muslims were up 50 percent from the same time last year, rising to 33 from 22. Crimes involving sexual orientation were also up — to 101 from last year’s 74. Whites have been victims, too, the source of 16 reported crimes.

The numbers reflect a distinctive effort by a law enforcement agency to track crimes driven by intolerance, for hate crimes are notoriously poorly reported across the country. Since 1980, however, the New York Police Department has operated a hate crime task force, and since 1994 it has diligently sent off its data on such crimes to the FBI.

“There is this one dedicated unit that is able to focus on these cases and solve them, and you can see why you need this in a city of 10 million people of all different identities,” said Chief Michael Osgood, who has run the Hate Crimes Task force for 14 years. “You have a right to walk down the street and be safe in your identity. Only the government can deliver on that right.”

The 2016 election has raised alarm about the prospect of hate crimes, and with it an attendant worry over the willingness and ability of government to adequately chronicle them. The FBI releases annual tabulations of hate crimes, but admits they are clearly incomplete. A handful of states have no hate crime statutes, making it even more difficult to determine with any precision the prevalence of violence attributable to prejudice.

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Osgood, the NYPD’s hate crimes chief, said he was confounded that other departments wouldn’t keep more detailed records and why they wouldn’t consider it vital to report them to the FBI.

“I don’t see why anybody would not report them. Why would you not report them?” said Osgood, rejecting the idea that data collection is a daunting task for police departments — a frequent criticism of the requirement. “Police agencies have to record a lot of data.”

Osgood’s task force currently has 27 detectives dedicated to investigating hate crimes. They oversee a clear-cut process for reporting suspected hate crimes within the NYPD. When a responding officer suspects a crime might have been inspired by bias, he or she is required to report it to a captain, who takes over the case immediately. If the sergeant agrees, it’s referred to the Hate Crimes Task Force. The task force also reviews cases when the captain disagrees with the responding officer to ensure no mistakes were made, but Osgood says they rarely overturn those findings — maybe “two or three times a year.”

Osgood said this centralized method for investigating hate crimes is essential. “[The detectives] become more effective,” he said. “They are able to understand the statute and develop the right skill. “It allows a focused effort on hate crimes in this city.”

The concentrated expertise and continuous data collection in all five counties of New York City suggests that the NYPD has the one of the more advanced databases of hate crimes in the country, certainly within New York State.

In other New York counties, the data appears far less comprehensive. According to state data, Onondaga County — which contains Syracuse and has a population of almost half a million — recorded only 11 hate crimes during the five-year period ending in 2015. During the same time frame, Staten Island’s similarly populated Richmond County recorded 142 despite a crime rate less than half of Onondaga’s.

Starting on Jan. 1, 2017, a New York City Council bill will take effect releasing hate crimes data to the public in quarterly reports, although the new database will not include historical data.

Even with New York City’s effort to track hate crimes, experts agree that the NYPD’s task force is probably only catching a portion of such crimes that happen in the city. A national survey by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that fewer than half of all hate crimes were reported to the police, though this was not broken down by city.

“The scale of that is almost scary,” said Frank Pezzella, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies hate crimes. “The same people that these laws are designed to protect are the ones with the most strained relationships with the police — blacks, LGBT people, undocumented aliens.”

Pezzella said the hesitation on the part of these groups to report hate crimes may distort the data.

“The problems with the numbers is that they are really small,” he said, adding that it makes small increases look like significant spikes, while crimes that don’t get reported at all are left out of the equation.

Despite the institutional difficulty of capturing all hate crimes, experts — including Pezzella — are confident that there has been a rise in 2016. New York’s 373 by Dec. 18 is the largest total since 2012. The city is so concerned with the recent incidents that the New York City Commission on Human Rights has launched a “Bias Response Team,” which will respond to hate crimes by offering assistance to victims and their communities.

New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill has attributed the uptick in New York City to the animosity around the election. On Nov. 20, O’Neill appeared on “The Cat’s Roundtable” on 970 AM with John Catsimatidis. “You’ve been paying attention to what’s been going on in the country over the last year or so,” he said. “The rhetoric has increased, and I think that might have something to do with it.”

Osgood, for his part, thinks it’s more to do with the “hate rhetoric” reported on by media. “The mainstream media is hyping all of this,” he asserted. “They are coming to their own conclusions. Some are accurate, and some aren’t.”

Pezzella disagrees with Osgood’s characterization of the media’s influence. He said the characterization that the media is causing spikes in hate crimes amounted to “the tail wagging the dog.”

Whether it’s the events themselves or the media’s coverage of them, hate crimes do spike when negative news linked to specific identities occurs. In 2012, anti-Semitic crimes doubled in New York City as an outbreak of violence consumed the Gaza Strip. In the weeks after Sept. 11, the city recorded the highest number of hate crimes of any month in the previous 10 years – mostly against those who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. And in 1986, after a white mob attacked three black motorists in Howard Beach, Queens, leaving one of them dead, racial tensions flared and hate crimes rose.

“This is not a new phenomenon,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Levin, who served on the NYPD prior to attending law school, said that hate crimes vary widely by city and that local factors will deeply affect how national conversations about hate play out.

New York, as a result, may see less of a problem in the future. Osgood said that since 1994, when the NYPD began sending its annual counts to the FBI, the sustained overall trend in hate crimes in the city was down.

Jim Mulvaney is a professor at John Jay and a former New York State deputy commissioner of the Division of Human Rights, where he worked to develop anti-bias training programs. He said the forced interactions New Yorkers have every day helps mitigate the intolerance that might otherwise surface in such a diverse city.

“People smell different, they sound different, they dress different,” he said. “And you get over it.”

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