The number of hate crimes in Washington state is skyrocketing, according to The Seattle Times, which reported a 78% rise over the past four years [“Hate crime on the rise in Seattle and Washington state, study finds,” July 9, Local]. The story cites data from a recent analysis by SafeHome.org, a commercial enterprise that studies regional crime data and tests home-security products and services.

These statistics, although haunting for their rapid growth, are very likely only the tip of an increasingly menacing iceberg that is frozen in unreliable federal reporting processes and political divisiveness.

The SafeHome.org study includes statistics from annual FBI hate crimes data that identify cases of malicious harassment reported to more than 16,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide between 2013 and 2017. The analysis reports that “nearly half” of all race-related hate crimes were against black victims, that Jewish-targeted incidents represented 58% of all victims in religious offenses, followed by Muslims at 19%. The study names Seattle among the top five U.S. cities with the highest reported hate crimes (with Eugene, Phoenix, Cincinnati and Philadelphia). The Times reported that in Seattle alone, the largest number of hate crimes reported to the FBI in 2017 involved incidents motivated by the victim’s race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender.

The challenge with these statistics is that they are little more than a highly educated guess — built largely on misleading and incomplete data. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which also tracks hate crimes numbers, more than half of all hate crimes are never reported to police. Moreover, while federal law requires all police departments to submit hate crimes statistics to the FBI every year, in 2017 only 2,040 of 16,149 jurisdictions (12.6%) actually reported hate-crimes statistics to the FBI. While many agencies reported “zero hate crimes,” others reasoned they could bypass submitting a report due to inadequate staffing, missed deadlines and the belief that no reports of hate crimes means none were committed. While such reports are a gross distortion of truth, delinquent agencies suffer no federal consequences.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has categorized reports of zero hate crimes as “the False Zero Phenomenon.” As one example, the former SPLC director of intelligence commented, “[if] the Montgomery, Alabama, Police Department misses the FBI deadline for reporting hate crimes, the Alabama State police pencil in a zero. There may have been hate crimes there, but they just don’t make the deadline and don’t report anything. In that case, the ‘false zero’ creates an assumption that no hate crimes were committed in Montgomery.”

Victims in marginalized communities have sound reasons not to report hate crimes. Distrust of police officers is strongest in populations targeted for hate crimes, specifically, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, and immigrants, people with disabilities and the homeless. In addition to experiencing higher crime rates, these populations have a long history of unfair treatment by law enforcement.

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Many victims fear being discounted, not taken seriously by police, or feeling revictimized by invasive questioning. Immigrants fear deportation or an unfair intrusion into their background. Some LGBTQ victims fear being outed by media reports identifying them by name. Muslims and other religious minorities prefer to keep their cultural identity private.

Underreporting hate crimes leads elected officials to interpret inaccurate data to mean police are keeping would-be extremists at bay. Worse yet, citizens let down their guard believing they are not in imminent danger. This dynamic is exacerbated by a president who emboldens members of the white-supremacist movement by failing to rebuke their hateful behaviors at a time when racial tensions across the U.S. are explosive.

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Because governmental accounting processes are flawed, the real power to track hate crimes falls to ethnic, religious, LGBTQ and other community groups working collaboratively to identify all incidents of bias-motivated crimes, support victims and develop strategies to protect one another. To that end, Seattle is the vanguard of other cities.

The Seattle City Council Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development and Arts Committee is currently exploring ways for community organizations to work with Seattle police, prosecutors and other law enforcement agencies to reduce hate crimes. In concert with a revitalized focus on community policing, Seattle may very well be on track to confront faulty statistics that just do not measure up to reality.