FBI hate crime data is spotty

Gannett News Service, July 16, 1999
By Greg Barrett

WASHINGTON -- A gay man who allegedly made an advance toward two male acquaintances was lured from a Sylacauga, Ala., bar in February and beaten to death with an ax handle. His corpse was dragged to a creek bank and burned on a pyre of old tires.

But in Alabama, the murder of Billy Jack Gaither wasn't classified as a hate crime. No hate crimes are being counted by the 282 Alabama law enforcement agencies responsible for tracking them.

"There are a few hate crimes here that I know of for sure ... and one definitely in Billy Jack Gaither," said Carol Roberts of the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center in Montgomery. But "there is a reluctance of the officers to try and determine the motivation of the offender. ... You are trying to get into someone else's head and I don't think it is always that cut and dry."

So in the latest reports by the FBI, there are no hate crimes listed for Alabama. Or Mississippi. Or Arkansas. Of the 11,211 law enforcement agencies nationwide reporting to the FBI, 85 percent recorded no hate crimes in their jurisdictions in 1997, the latest year for which data are available.

The Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 charges the FBI with collecting national data on criminal acts motivated in whole or in part by a bias against a race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation (bias against a mental or physical disability was added in 1994). Reporting is voluntary and only New Hampshire and Hawaii failed to participate in 1997.

But by all accounts, the FBI's annual report on hate crimes, the definitive data for news media and lawmakers, has been spotty. Even misleading.

The Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act of 1994 allows for stiffer sentences for hate crimes committed on federal property, but each state decides how it will define and prosecute hate crimes.

If a state submits hate crime statistics to the FBI it is expected to use the federal definition. In Alabama, where bias against sexual orientation is not prosecuted as a hate crime, there is a one-page supplemental form that counts it as a hate crime for statistical purposes.

"A lot of times it is not as simple as filling out a form and declaring something as a hate crime," said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson. "There's a certain methodology ... and some (agencies) have not adopted the methodology."

There were 8,049 hate crime offenses reported to the FBI in 1997, down from 8,734 in 1996. Intimidation -- such as threatening acts, flyers, letters or phone calls -- was the most frequent offense, accounting for more than one-third of these hate crimes. There were eight hate-crime homicides reported to the FBI in 1997 (three anti-gay, three anti-black, two

Extremist elements

Other examples of separatist organizations that shun the term "hate group":

  • Kay Ryan, the first woman Grand Dragon of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, uses Bible stories to justify separation of the races. "Two of each kind of everything were put on Noah's ark. ... You had red birds and blue birds; you did not have purple birds. Even the smallest-minded animals don't mix." Never label her Klan a hate group, said Ryan of Rural Ridge, Pa. "We are a Christian organization. We open our meetings with a prayer and close with a prayer."
  • The Rev. Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., often pickets the funerals of gay people. Among his placards: "God hates fags." After gay college student Matthew Shepard was beaten and killed last year near Laramie, Wyo., Phelps and 15 of his followers waved their signs outside his funeral. Today, Phelps' Web site features a mug shot of Shepard bobbing in the flames of hell. But Phelps doesn't consider this hateful: "I simply feel an urgency and a necessity to preach the gospel to them. Nobody else is, and I hope they will listen to me and repent."
  • Turban-wearing Black Hebrew Israelites shout themselves hoarse daily in New York's Times Square: Whites are the devil, they yell. God hates whites, they yell. God inspired white students to kill other white students this year at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., they yell. "Don't call us a hate group," said Priest Chaakam. "No, no, no. We don't hate. We are a spiritual group."


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