Police may have underreported hate crimes and incidents in recent years, according to city auditors, and could improve training and data analysis.
Seattle police could improve their training and data analysis related to hate crimes, according to City Auditor David Jones, and recently upgraded their reporting on such offenses.
Police may have underreported hate crimes and incidents because of the way they’ve categorized some offenses, Jones said in a report released Wednesday. He acknowledged that police fixed that problem in July.
Reports on hate crimes and incidents increased 39 percent in the first six months of this year compared with the same period in 2016, from 128 to 178 crimes and incidents, according to the Seattle Police Department (SPD).
The groups most commonly the targets of bias in the first half of this year were blacks, gays and lesbians and Jews, according to police.
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Auditors found that about 17,000 offense reports annually between 2012 and 2016 had indicated “unknown” in the bias category. “This may have resulted in SPD undercounting hate crimes,” auditors wrote.
The vast majority of reports by officers either indicated “no bias” or specified the type of bias from a list of categories. The FBI recommends that agencies update the bias category as investigations progress so that hate-crime data should have few, if any cases coded as “unknown.”
In a written response to the audit, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said the unknown category was removed in July and officers were directed to choose the most applicable category or ”no bias.”
Seattle reports more bias-related incidents than any similarly sized city except Boston, O’Toole said.
The number of reported hate crimes and incidents in Seattle has increased every year since 2012, Detective Elizabeth Wareing — who coordinates the department’s response to bias crimes — told City Council members this past week.
Wareing said she didn’t know if that annual rise reflected an increase in crimes and incidents, or more diligent reporting, particularly by witnesses. “It’s something I’m constantly looking at,” she said, adding it would be “foolish to say the election of 2016 hasn’t had an effect on our city.”
State law defines malicious harassment — a felony commonly referred to as a “hate crime” — as intentionally injuring, damaging property or threatening someone “because of his or her perception of the victim’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or mental, physical or sensory handicap.”
In Seattle, a misdemeanor malicious-harassment law extends those protections to include gender identity, homelessness, marital status, political ideology, age and parental status.
Auditors said the categories of age, parental status, marital status and political ideology were not available in the SPD’s records management menu in recent years. O’Toole said they were added in July.
Seattle police also track crimes with a bias element, in which hatred toward a protected group or class is a secondary motivation, and bias incidents, which aren’t crimes. Bias incidents often involve hateful speech against a protected class that is free speech and protected by the First Amendment.
Auditors said patrol officers would benefit from more formal training. The state police academy provides a four-hour class that includes a segment on the state’s malicious-harassment law, but the SPD doesn’t provide additional training. Auditors recommended a new hate-crimes training curriculum for officers.
Although the SPD has made data on hate crimes more accessible to the public through a new web-based system, more sophisticated use of data could help with crime prevention, auditors said. They plan to take a closer look at what’s possible in a follow-up report.
Wareing said many hate crimes in Seattle appear to be “crimes of opportunity” without predictable factors, such as consistent locations and repeat offenders.
In addition, the SPD told auditors that their analysis of time, date and location of hate-crime data from January through June 2017 found no meaningful information that could be used for prevention purposes.
O’Toole also pointed to praise from a national expert for SPD’s data collection and analysis efforts.
In her six-page response to auditors, O’Toole said the department’s efforts and progress on hate crimes were “not given fair context, and this has a risk of portraying to the community that we do not take these crimes seriously — which is simply not true.”
The SPD has ramped up its training in several areas under a federal Department of Justice consent decree, she said. The Bias Crimes Unit and others will create a training video that can be used departmentwide, she said.
“I look forward to further review of the report, and to the second phase, which will focus on how the City can improve use of hate crime data,” said a statement from Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who requested the audit.