Researchers say the FBI's statistics on hate crimes across the country are flawed
The FBI recorded a drop in hate crimes in 2021, but the year's tally may not give a true account of hate crimes in the United States as thousands of law enforcement agencies were absent from the accounting.
The FBI annualized collection of data from law enforcement agencies saw 7,262 crimes motivated by race, religion, gender or other factors last year. That's a decrease from 8,263 incidents in 2020. But those numbers offer misleading conclusions as they are drawn from a pool of 3,255 fewer law enforcement agencies.
Only 11,883 agencies out of 18,812 city, state, municipal and tribal law enforcement agencies around the county sent data to the FBI, down from 15,138 in 2020.
The participation drop-off is due to a transition from a legacy crime reporting system that has existed in various forms since the 1920s to a more sophisticated reporting system that captures specific details of a crime. It allows the FBI and researchers to extract deeper analysis from crime statistics. For example, FBI data in 2021 showed that approximately 80% of homicides nationwide were committed with a firearm. That kind of data point wouldn't have been possible under the previous system.
But thousands of law enforcement agencies, including some of the biggest in the country like New York and Los Angeles, have lagged in the transition that began in 2016 to the new National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).
Scores of police departments have found it difficult and costly to upgrade their legacy systems, despite the Justice Department aiding state and local agencies with more than $120 million in grants. The San Francisco Police Department told The Marshall project that it doesn't plan to send FBI data until 2025.
In 2021, for the first time, the FBI accepted data exclusively from the new NIBRS system, resulting in significant gaps that researchers say render the year's report meaningless.
In a news release, the Justice Department said "data cannot reliably be compared across years" as "several of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies, as well as some states, did not make the transition." As more law enforcement agencies transition to the new system, the department said, it would be able to "provide a richer and more complete picture of hate crimes nationwide."
But some researchers cast doubt on the FBI's ability to capture the true extent of hate crime in the United States even when more agencies are reporting their data, arguing that the issue runs deeper than the adoption of a new technology.
"People generally don't report crimes to the police. And for hate crimes, a lot of victims might not know they're a victim of a hate crime," says Jacob Kaplan, a researcher at Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs. "So even if 100% of agencies reported every hate crime they had and tried to really investigate everything, perceived hate crime, you're still going to be missing out on a potentially extremely large number of victims."
Researchers cite the gulf between the FBI's hate crime statistics compared to other data sets, such as the National Crime Victimization Survey reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
"There's 200,000 to 300,000 hate crime incidents in a given year and the FBI data records less than 10,000 of them," says Eaven Holder, who authored a peer-reviewed study examining 18 years between the two data sets. "Estimates from the National Crime Victimization Survey suggests that 40 to 50% of all hate crimes go unreported to police."
In some cases, there is disagreement among law enforcement agencies about what constitutes a hate crime.
"New Jersey is a pretty good example where in recent years New Jersey has reported a lot more hate crimes than the FBI has agreed with," says Kaplan.
"Sometimes the FBI and the welfare agencies will disagree about why, the amount of bias, or disagree whether it was a hate crime," Kaplan says.
For example, in 2021 New Jersey reported 877 anti-Black bias incidents while the FBI counted 92. The FBI counted 25 incidents of anti-Jewish crimes in the same year, while New Jersey said there were 298.
New Jersey has reported a 400% increase in bias incidents since 2015, largely owing to the increase in harassment, a category the FBI does not include.
In some cases, gathering evidence to prove the motivating bias behind a crime may require more investigative resources than investigating the crime itself.
"For a hate crime to be reported, there needs to be evidence of bias that plays at least a small part in the crime," Kaplan notes. "And then the police need to have actual evidence, not just like, 'I think I was the victim of a hate crime.' They need some kind of evidence that suggests that bias was a motivating factor."
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