FBI Data Miss Hate Crimes, Watchdog Group Says

Analysis Finds 50,000 a Year in U.S.; Some States Do Not Participate Fully in Reporting

Washington Post/November 29, 2001
By Darryl Fears

Over the past decade, the FBI has reported that about 8,000 hate crimes were committed each year in the United States. But a watchdog group that monitors such crimes says in an analysis released today that the FBI's data collection method has routinely missed tens of thousands of cases.

The analysis, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., concluded that the number of hate crimes was probably closer to 50,000 a year. The reason for the discrepancy, a spokesman for the law center said, is that participation in the FBI's annual Hate Crime Statistics report is voluntary, and several states -- including Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi -- do not participate fully.

"The overall numbers are virtually useless," said the spokesman, Mark Potok, who also edited the analysis. "I think clearly we will not get a complete picture of what happened in the wake of September 11th and attacks against members of the Arab community. I think that's precisely the problem we're trying to address in this report."

The FBI collects the data from local jurisdictions under the Hate Crime Statistics Act, which was passed 10 years ago. At the time, then-President George Bush said, "The faster we find out about these hideous crimes, the faster we can track down the bigots who commit them."

But little money was allocated to train police officers to determine whether a crime was fueled by hate. Law enforcement personnel in Wyoming, Texas, Alabama and Wisconsin were dismissive of the law, according to the law center's report.

The report, which incorporates research commissioned by the Department of Justice, cites several crimes that went unreported as hate crimes. Among them were the fatal shooting in 1999 of Sasezley Richardson, a black 19-year-old who lived in Indiana, in which the accused gunman allegedly sought membership in the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood, and the 1999 slaying of Billy Gaither, a gay man who was beaten to death and set afire in Sylacauga, Ala.

The report also includes an incident in which a swastika was spray-painted on a car in Oregon, Wis. "The family wasn't Jewish and it was a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds and they were drunk and goofing around," the officer who handled the case is quoted as saying.

"The problem with the reporting of hate crimes is far greater than originally thought," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, a proposed addendum to the hate crimes law, is awaiting debate on the Senate floor. "Now more than ever, we need to give law enforcement the tools and resources they need to both report and fight against these senseless acts of hate and violence."

But the law center's findings are hardly news to the FBI, said Maryvictoria Pyne, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services in Clarksburg, W.Va., where hate-crime and other data are compiled for the Uniform Crime Reporting program. Pyne said the law center's analysis relied heavily on a survey commissioned by the Justice Department.

"I think the Justice Department is aware of the weaknesses in the program and has been trying to correct them," Pyne said. "When I read Mark's comments that the program is a wreck, I thought that when you're building a house, and you look back on it when it's half-finished, you don't say it's a wreck."

Jim Nolan, a West Virginia University criminologist who helped compile the FBI survey, agreed. "There's some work being done to figure that stuff out. What tends to happen is people look at this program and say it's not working. But the FBI had to define the crime, they had to train officers to do it, and they did it with no money, and so 10 years later, they've built up a system that has the potential to be a very good system."

An academic who studied the hate-crime statistics agreed with Potok that the uneven reporting from state to state resulted in some odd findings. For example, said Jack Levin, a Northeastern University professor of sociology and author of "The Violence of Hate," crimes targeting blacks are the most frequent in every year. At the same time, the FBI's reports say black perpetrators are more likely to commit hate crimes than those from other racial categories.

"This, in my view, is an exaggeration that leads to the view that blacks disproportionately commit hate crimes," Levin said. "Those states where blacks are likely to be disproportionately targeted . . . are not reporting."

Jack McDevitt, an associate dean of Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice and co-author of the FBI survey, said that hate-crime reporting had many problems but that the FBI deserved time to improve the effort.

"They were partnered with us throughout," he said. "They've instituted some changes in how this stuff is supported since then. I think they saw that this data isn't up to the standards that some of their other data statistics are. As far as the organization goes, I've got nothing but support on this."

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