In 2015, the authorities in California documented 837 hate-crime incidents, charting a surge in offenses motivated by religious intolerance toward Muslims and Jews, while crimes against Latinos grew by 35 percent.
Shortly after Donald J. Trump was elected the country’s next president, the Southern Poverty Law Center put up a form on its website encouraging people to share details about potential hate crimes. By the next day, they’d received about 250 reports – more than they’re used to seeing in six months.
Then on November 14, the FBI released its latest national tabulation of hate crimes, data that showed an overall uptick of 6.8 percent from 2014 to 2015. The accounting, drawn from information passed on to the bureau by state and local law enforcement agencies, charted a 67-percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes.
The mix of information – state level, anecdotal, federally collected, dating from two years ago to last week – is sure to fuel the country’s evolving conversation and concern about the potential for violence in a divided America. Already, those worried about the consequences of Trump’s triumph have seized on some of the reports to stoke worry about emboldened white nationalists. And Trump’s supporters have moved quickly to try and debunk the swirl of alleged incidents of intimidation and violence that have surfaced in social media.
But even in the early stages of what promises to be a prolonged focus on crimes colored by prejudice and politics, there appears to be one irrefutable truth: the data is deeply flawed.
James Comey, the director of the FBI, said as much even as he announced the bureau’s latest batch of numbers.
“We need to do a better job of tracking and reporting hate crimes to fully understand what is happening in our communities and how to stop it,” Comey said.
More than 3,000 state and local law enforcement agencies don’t report hate crimes to the FBI as part of its annual national survey of crime in America. Professor Brian Levin, who heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said the entire state of Hawaii fails to file any such reports.
And many of the law enforcement agencies that do choose to participate do not appear to be particularly rigorous about documenting hate crimes and passing that information onto the federal authorities.
“A lot of agencies just submit a piece of paper saying they had no hate crimes,” added Levin, noting that the vast majority of police and sheriff’s departments reported no hate crimes last year.
The data appears particularly spotty in much of the South, a region with a long history of racial strife. Police in Mississippi reported zero hate crimes in 2015. In Arkansas, the number was eight. In Alabama, it was 12.
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