National, local groups launch hotlines, track incidents and raise awareness

Definitions of hate vary widely

What is a hate crime? Depends on who you ask.

In August 2020, a man approached Hong Lee as she waited for tacos in a Los Angeles restaurant. The man asked her to have lunch with him. After Lee – a wedding ring on her finger – declined the offer, the man told her to go back to Asia, using racial slurs and other derogatory terms.

In a panic, Lee hit the record button on her phone, then did what most Americans do when feeling endangered: She called 911.

A police officer arrived, watched the video and told Lee the man didn’t break any laws. There was nothing they could do. Under the First Amendment, the man had the right to say those words.

Soon after, Lee began to speak out. She posted the video on social media, and it went viral, earning more than 21,000 likes and 5,000 comments on Instagram as of September.

After the incident gained so much attention, Lee said, Los Angeles police finally took action. They took a police report, classifying the encounter as a hate incident.

Los Angeles is among the few departments in the country that even have that option. Some departments won’t take reports on noncriminal hate incidents, much less track them.

The federal definition of a hate crime is a criminal offense motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against protected groups, including race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

Many states – and many cities – have their own definitions.

That’s a challenge, said Michael Jensen, senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

In addition to adopting a universal definition, Jensen said, the country would need to deploy it at the federal, state and local levels to collect consistent data, adding, “That’s a pretty tough thing to do.”

Under a federal hate crime law adopted in 1990 and updated in 2009, the FBI must track hate crimes. However, it’s voluntary for police departments to collect and submit their data to the national database.

Most don’t.

The reasons vary: The system isn’t always clear or easy. Some department leaders don’t see the need or want the stigma attached to reporting hate crimes in their community. And sometimes, officers don’t even know how to properly identify bias-motivated crimes according to their state laws.

“Despite the fact that the FBI over the last 30 years has tried to do considerable training throughout the country to get everyone on the same page, there still seems to be a lot of confusion at the state and local level over what should be reported and what shouldn’t,” Jensen said.

Orlando Martinez, the hate crimes coordinator for the Los Angeles Police Department, said he has witnessed severe underreporting of hate crimes in his more than 23 years as an officer in one of the country’s biggest cities. Last year, the city reported 615 hate crimes, which Martinez called “statistically improbable.”

It’s worse on the national scale.

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“Across the nation, departments are counting zero,” he said. “‘We had zero. We had zero consistently for decades.’ They hadn’t had any hate crimes, which is statistically impossible. But that’s what they’re reporting.”

Among the 15,138 law enforcement agencies that submitted data in 2020, 88% reported no hate crimes at all, according to Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, who was quoted in an article from Axios.

For example, Alabama, with a population of nearly 5 million, reported zero hate crimes in 2019. Martinez said that’s statistically impossible.

Jensen said a potential solution “everybody would like to see” would be a federal requirement that states and local jurisdictions participate in the FBI reporting. However, that’s not likely.

“That would take an act of Congress,” he said. “And right now, that feels like it would take an act of god for Congress to get on the same page and to do something like that.”

President Joe Biden said he recognized the lack of resources and training for law enforcement to identify and report hate crimes to the FBI. In May 2021, Biden signed the COVID–19 Hate Crimes Act. Among other actions, the Department of Justice will issue clearer guidances for law enforcement to establish online reporting of hate crimes.

Maureen O’Leary, director of field and organizing at Washington, D.C.-based Interfaith Alliance, said the act is something “we have needed for a long time.”

“It’s a first step, but it is only the first step.”

States and cities can strengthen laws

Many states, especially those with large, diverse metropolitan areas, have gone even further by increasing penalties, broadening protection to include additional identity classes and requiring more accurate data collection.

For example, Oregon passed a comprehensive bill in 2019 that brought landmark changes to the state’s existing hate crime law. Senate Bill 577 extended the definition of a hate crime to include gender identity, tightened data collection requirements and eliminated hard-to-meet state mandates, such as requiring two or more people to commit the crime to be classified as bias-motivated in the first degree.

Sixteen other states protect gender identity. Thirty-four do not, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Three states – Wyoming, South Carolina and Arkansas – don’t have any additional protections against bias-motivated hate.

It’s been more than two decades since the killing of Wyoming native Matthew Shepard – a murder that bears the name of the 2009 federal hate crime law and inspired state laws across the country.

Jim Ritter, a consultant who specializes in improving relationships between law enforcement and LGBTQ+ communities, said even though the Shepard case made national news, Wyoming didn’t pass its own hate crime laws.

“Look how many years and how many victims have probably continually been assaulted in Wyoming or other states,” said Ritter, a retired LGBTQ liaison with the Seattle Police Department. “There’s something that the legislatures in the states can do about it. But until they have a reason to, they won’t. And the federal government can’t force them to.”

Even when states don’t have their own hate crime laws, cities can make changes to strengthen their ordinances. For example, in South Carolina, the Charleston City Council passed a hate intimidation ordinance.

A news outlet described the 2018 ordinance passing with “little public discussion or fanfare” – with less debate than on Charleston’s proposed plastic bag ban. But city leaders said they felt it was time for the city to go after acts of targeted violence, according to Charleston City Paper.

At the time, the police chief said he hoped a state hate crime law would follow. So far, it hasn’t.

Officer training plays key role

Reporting of a hate crime often hinges on the individual officer’s ability to properly identify a hate crime per state guidelines. The Uniform Crime Reporting program only accounts for prosecutable hate crimes reported to local police departments.

“The reality of it all, across the nation,” Martinez said, “is that people don’t call the police saying, ‘I need help. I’ve been the victim of a hate crime.’ People call because they get hurt, they’re scared and threatened.”

It’s up to the training the officers receive to recognize these bias-motivated events, Martinez said. If departments don’t require training or don’t make it a priority, some, or most, of these events will go unreported.

A 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of nearly 770 training academies across the country found most agencies reported some hate crime training to recruits, averaging fewer than five hours. Only 5% of the academies devote two days or more to the topic, according to a News21 analysis of the data, the most recent available.

Some departments partner with outside agencies to conduct training.

For example, Not in Our Town, a program to stop hate, offers online courses on topics such as transgender issues. The Bureau of Justice Assistance has offered funding to support the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Program, which also conducts training.

Senior Officer Terry Cherry, the recruiter for the Charleston Police Department, said the Matthew Shepard Foundation and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law collaborated with them to do a voluntary hate crime training – especially important because of the city’s hate intimidation ordinance. She said she tied the training to LGBTQ+ and social justice issues, which she’s passionate about improving.

“I had a really good turnout because it wasn’t mandatory,” she said, adding that officers told her privately how much they wanted the training.

The Anti-Defamation League, a 109-year-old organization based on Jewish values, said it educates an estimated 15,000 law enforcement personnel every year. The league partners with police agencies to educate officers on the damage of anti-Semitic vandalism, slurs and attacks.

In one of these trainings, in Los Angeles, the league brought in a rabbi to provide a history and culture lesson so LA police could develop better practices when interacting with the Jewish community.

With better knowledge and understanding, Loewenstein said, law enforcement can respond with support and care, and then the whole of society can follow.