Did Hate Crimes Go Up? We Can’t Tell from FBI Statistics

“Hate crimes in U.S. surge by 17 percent” says the headline on the front page of today’s Arizona Republic. This statistic comes from data collected annually by the FBI. But how accurate is it?

According to the FBI news release, “Law enforcement agencies submitted incident reports involving 7,175 criminal incidents and 8,437 related offenses as being motivated by bias toward race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, and gender identity.”

The FBI’s 2016 report on hate crimes listed 6,121 incidents, so the 2017 number indeed represents an increase of 17%.

But let’s look at how the data are collected.

  • Law enforcement agencies are asked to report numbers of hate crimes to the FBI. Reporting is entirely voluntary.

  • In 2016, 15,254 agencies submitted hate crime data. In 2017, 16,149 agencies (about 6% more than in 2016) submitted data. We’d expect more crimes when more agencies report data.

  • The statistics depend on which agencies submitted data, and how they recorded the crimes. More than 14,000 of the agencies that submitted data reported no hate crimes. Reporting hate crimes is more paperwork for already overworked law enforcement agencies, and some of these zeroes may be incorrect.

  • Many people do not report crimes to the police, particularly if they do not want to have contact with the justice system or they fear retribution.  Did the number of hate crimes rise because of an increase in the true number, or because more people reported the crimes to the police?

  • Or because a few police departments changed their procedures for recording hate crimes?

  • Or because there is more awareness of hate crimes, affecting both reporting and recording?

A quick check of your local newspaper will reveal many crimes not found in the official statistics. For example, a September 2017 incident involving vandalism and spray-painted swastikas was not reported in the Flagstaff, AZ statistics; Flagstaff reported no hate crimes for 2017.

Other data sources indicate that the FBI statistics are much, much too small.

The National Crime Victimization Survey, a nationally representative survey of the US population, asks questions about hate crimes. According to the survey data, each year between 2004 and 2015 approximately 250,000 hate crimes took place. About 46% of those were reported to the police.

The 2017 statistics from the survey have not yet been released, but if previous trends continue these statistics suggest that the FBI statistics should have records of more than 100,000 hate crime incidents per year — a  much larger number than the 6,000—7,000 incidents reported by the FBI in 2016 and 2017.

Pro Publica, an independent investigative news service, has begun a project called “Documenting Hate.” Their map of agencies that reported no hate crimes in 2016 (including the entire state of Hawaii) shows the spottiness of the FBI data collection.

Pro Publica encourages persons who think they have been victimized by a hate crime to submit details of the incident to their database.  This crowdsourcing approach shows great potential for capturing details of incidents that are not reported to, or recorded by, police.

The FBI statistics tell us that there were at least 7,175 incidents of hate crime in 2017. But that is about all that can be concluded from them.

My forthcoming book Measuring Crime: Behind the Statistics tells you why an increase in FBI crime statistics does not necessarily mean crime has gone up.

Copyright (c) 2018 Sharon L. Lohr

crime statisticsSharon Lohr