There were 521 hate crimes, crimes with bias elements and noncriminal bias incidents reported to Seattle police in 2018, representing an increase of nearly 400% since 2012 and an increase of nearly 25% over 2017, according to a new Office of the City Auditor study released Thursday.
But prosecutions of such cases are rare, the study says, with fewer than 40 convictions for Seattle hate crimes from 2012 through 2017.
There were 125 reports of hate crimes (also called malicious harassment), 215 reports of crimes with bias elements and 181 reports of noncriminal bias incidents last year, says the study requested by City Councilmember Lisa Herbold.
In 2012, there were only 106 reports across all three of those categories, including 28 hate crimes. Hate crimes can involve assault, bodily harm or property damage and are motivated by bias related to the victim’s real or perceived characteristics.
“A rise in reported hate crimes does not necessarily mean there are more of these crimes occurring,” the study says. “Jurisdictions that report more hate crimes are typically seen as leaders in hate-crime response efforts because high reporting can indicate law enforcement is prioritizing these crimes.”
Reports of hate crimes have grown in other large cities as well. The Seattle Police Department hired a bias-crimes coordinator in 2015 that has made community outreach a priority, according to the study.
Washington law covers hate crimes related to race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and disabilities. Seattle law also covers those related to homelessness, marital status, political ideology, age and parental status.
In the city, reported assaults with a hate element have increased more than hate crimes involving harassment and threats. Reports involving racial bias have increased more than those involving sexual orientation and religion.
Hate crimes tend to be concentrated in high-traffic parts of the city, in demographically diverse areas such as downtown and Capitol Hill, and along the borders of racially diverse neighborhoods, the Office of the City Auditor found.
Nearly a quarter of Seattle hate-crime cases prosecuted from 2012 through 2017 occurred on buses or at bus stops, and nearly a third occurred on the street, according to the study.
Community organizations say hate crimes are a serious issue, with some populations more vulnerable, such as people with disabilities and homeless people, and more support from the city is needed, according to the study.
The Police Department refers about a third of reported hate crimes for prosecution, the study says. But the department lacks sufficient data to evaluate its own efforts to prevent and respond to hate crimes, according to the Office of the City Auditor.
For example, when the department decides not to refer reported hate crimes for prosecution, it doesn’t document the detailed reasons why.
From 2012 through 2017, 398 reports of malicious harassment were verified by the department and 128 were referred for prosecution. Among those, 87 were prosecuted as malicious-harassment cases and 37 resulted in malicious-harassment convictions.
“Research has shown that hate crimes can be challenging to investigate and prosecute for many reasons,” the Office of the City Auditor study says.
“Most hate crimes involve encounters between strangers, so a victim may not be able to identify or locate the offender. Further, victims of hate crimes may be reluctant to participate in investigation and prosecution efforts because of the trauma they experienced from the incident.”
In the hate-crime prosecutions reviewed, 85% of the accused perpetrators were male, 22% were living unsheltered, 20% were mentally ill and 20% were intoxicated, according to the study. A weapon was involved in 25% of the cases.
The Police Department should partner with community organizations and better measure its efforts related to hate crimes, the office has recommended. The department’s Violent Crimes unit, which has about 50 staffers, includes just the one bias-crimes coordinator.
The Office of the City Auditor also has recommended that local prosecutors make data on hate crimes public.
In a letter addressing the study, Police Chief Carmen Best expressed general agreement with the intent of most of the office’s recommendations while describing her department as an international leader on dealing with hate crimes.
The department is already making strides and a new police records system should help, Best said.
Herbold intends to host a council committee discussion next week on new legislation that would allow the Seattle City Attorney’s Office “to more easily prosecute misdemeanor hate-crime cases,” she said Thursday.
“It’s not enough to know that these crimes are being committed,” Herbold said, raising concerns about “divisive rhetoric” coming from the Trump administration, growing white nationalism and domestic terrorism.
An earlier study by the Office of the City Auditor, released in 2017, called on the Police Department to improve its training and data analysis related to hate crimes.
Numbers released in November by the FBI showed a 32% increase in hate crimes across Washington state in 2017, compared to 2016.