The knock on the door, strong and quick, jolted Barbara Hicks Collins awake. It was the middle of the night. Someone must be in trouble, she thought. She flung open her front door to the shocking sight of her car engulfed in flames.
Investigators later determined someone had deliberately set fire to her Mercedes and also tried to burn down the one-story brick house she shared with her mother in this eastern Louisiana town, once known as a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity. Hicks Collins, a black woman, had no doubt the fire — set on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2012 — was racially motivated. Her father had been a prominent civil rights leader who filed lawsuits that desegregated local schools and forced police to protect protesters, and her family remained active in the community.
Despite the circumstances, the case was never counted in the nation’s annual tally of hate crimes. In fact, neither the police department nor the local sheriff has filed a hate crime report with the FBI since at least 2009.
And that’s not unusual, an investigation by The Associated Press found. The AP identified more than 2,700 city police and county sheriff’s departments across the country that have not submitted a single hate crime report for the FBI’s annual crime tally during the past six years — about 17 percent of all city and county law enforcement agencies nationwide.
Advocates worry that the lack of a comprehensive, annual accounting disguises the extent of bias crimes at a time of heightened racial, religious and ethnic tensions. The nation was stunned last June when nine black parishioners were shot dead at a Charleston, South Carolina, church, in an attack labeled a hate crime, and community groups have reported a notable increase in violence against Muslims and mosques in the wake of last year’s terror acts in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Gay and transgender people also are regular targets.
A better accounting of hate crimes, the FBI and other proponents say, would not only increase awareness but also boost efforts to combat such crimes with more resources for law enforcement training and community outreach.
“We need the reporting to happen,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached. “Without a diagnosis, we don’t know how serious the illness is. And without a diagnosis, there is no prescription. And without a prescription, there is no healing.”
The FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Filing reports for the federal count is voluntary and guidelines call for reports to be submitted even if they list zero hate crimes, a signal to both the FBI and the community that local departments are taking such crimes seriously.
FBI Director James Comey has called on all agencies to do a more aggressive job tracking hate crimes, and also has initiated training sessions on bias attacks for hundreds of law enforcement officers nationwide.
In response to an inquiry about Hicks Collins’ case, officials with both the Bogalusa Police and the Washington Parish Sheriff’s Department said they did not know hate crime information was not being reported and blamed clerical errors.
Four years later, no arrests have been made in the attack on her house and the state fire marshal’s office, which ultimately conducted the investigation, said it was unable to determine whether the setting of the fires constituted a hate crime or not.
Under FBI guidelines, an incident should be reported as a suspected hate crime if a “reasonable and prudent” person would conclude a crime was motivated by bias. Among the criteria for evaluation is whether an incident coincided with a significant holiday or date, specifically citing the King holiday. A suspect need not be identified to meet the threshold for reporting.
For Hicks Collins, the failure to count the 2012 attack as a hate crime is a painful reminder of the continuing struggle for racial progress.
“The more things change,” she said, “the more they remain the same.”
Between 5,000 and 7,000 hate crime incidents are catalogued each year in the FBI report, with nearly half of all victims in recent years targeted because of their race.
“It is the most important data collection initiative, but it is far from complete,” Michael Lieberman, the Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, said of the FBI’s survey.
The ADL has launched a “50 States Against Hate” campaign that includes improved data collection by law enforcement as a top priority, and also is seeking passage of hate crime laws in the five states that do not have them: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming.
Lieberman, who worked with the FBI and others on updating the agency’s hate crimes training manual published last year, said law enforcement agencies must neutralize the issues that can lead to non-reporting, such as departments fearing negative publicity and victims who may not trust the police.
“If these crimes are never really counted, it’s a way of saying they are not important,” said Mark Potok with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the U.S. “For many black people, it’s another form of being victimized. It’s a way of saying your life doesn’t matter.”
The AP examined FBI hate crime reports for the years 2009 through 2014 and matched those against lists of every city and county law enforcement agency in each state, obtained separately from all 50 states.
An analysis revealed that law enforcement reporting is spotty even beyond the more than 2,700 agencies that never filed even a single hate crime report. For example, thousands of city police and county sheriff’s departments — which handle the vast majority of local law enforcement responses and investigations — reported in some years but not others. And, in some cases, departments reported for, say, only one quarter of a year without submitting reports covering the rest of that span.
Some agencies said they thought they were reporting, even though they were not, and some thought they didn’t have to file reports because they hadn’t investigated any hate crimes. Others that oversee jails might have assumed they were exempt because they don’t patrol the streets, but the FBI encourages reporting by all law enforcement agencies whose officers are empowered to make arrests.
The vast majority of the departments that did not file any reports during the six-year period represented small towns, often consisting of just a few thousand residents or less. But the list also included the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, which handles law enforcement in a heavily populated and sprawling region around Portland, Oregon.
A number of larger cities with a history of racial troubles also were missing, including Birmingham, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Jackson Police did not file any hate crimes information to the FBI between 2009 and 2012, followed by only spotty reporting the next two years. And yet, during that time, state and federal charges were filed in connection with the June 2011 death of James Craig Anderson, a black man who was beaten and run over by a truck containing a group of white teenagers, some of whom yelled racial epithets during the assault.
Jackson Police spokeswoman Colendula D. Green insisted the FBI investigates potential hate crimes in the city and thus would be the reporting agency, even though that is not what the guidelines specify. A Birmingham Police spokesman said his agency had submitted the reports to the state, and it was unclear why they didn’t make it to the FBI.
The statistics analyzed by the AP also revealed wide disparities in how seriously states take the reporting. Nationwide, there were 16 states in which more than 25 percent of local law enforcement agencies did not appear at all in the FBI hate crime database between 2009 and 2014. That included 64 percent of agencies in Mississippi and 59 percent in Louisiana.
In March 2009 in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, nine inmates were charged with hate crimes following three attacks at the Lafourche Parish Detention Center, but the sheriff’s office is among the agencies submitting no information in the six-year span the AP studied.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Brennan Matherne said his agency had been directed to report crimes through the state crime reporting system based on the most significant charge, and that hate crimes are considered a secondary offense. He said the sheriff’s office would review the process going forward.
He noted that the department had recorded 17 hate crimes locally in 2009, three in 2010, three in 2011, six in 2012 and three in 2013.
According to officials in Hawaii, nine hate crimes were recorded in the state in the years 2009 through 2014, but they were not reflected in the national statistics because the state’s police agencies did not send such information to the FBI, despite submitting data on violent crimes such as homicide and rape. State officials have been compiling their own hate crimes report with information collected from local prosecutors rather than police, but the state will be switching to a new police filing system with hate crimes reporting built into it.
The AP’s analysis determined that some states clearly make reporting a priority. In Nevada, not a single police or sheriff’s department failed to report for all six years. In two of the nation’s most populous and diverse states, California and Florida, compliance also is nearly universal.
Nearly all the roughly 350 local law enforcement agencies in Tennessee routinely file. State officials there point to a robust state system for reporting crimes, along with regular training and audits of crime reports. Also helping with compliance is a state law under which law enforcement agencies can lose funds for failing to file.
Nationwide, the AP’s analysis found signs that the FBI’s efforts to step up reporting could be starting to pay off. In 2014, about 200 local law enforcement agencies that had not reported in the previous five-year period submitted information to the FBI.
“We must continue to impress upon our state and local colleagues in every jurisdiction the need to track and report hate crime,” Comey, the agency’s director, said in a speech that year. “It is not something we can ignore or sweep under the rug.”
It’s not just law enforcement departments that fail to report hate crimes. Many victims do not report them either.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics projected that just 40 percent of the “hate crime victimizations” it recorded in 2012 were reported to authorities. Among the top reasons given for staying silent, the agency said: fears of reprisals, a feeling that “police could not or would not help,” or the incident being considered a personal or private matter.
In recent years, members of the Sikh community have been targeted by attackers who, in some cases, confused them with Muslims because of their turbans or other head coverings. But S. Gulbarg Singh Basi, chairman of the American Sikh Council, said that some in his community fear that reporting those incidents might invite even more hate crimes.
“‘Keep your eyes closed and the problem will go away,'” said Basi. “I’m not saying that is right, but quite a few people think that.”
In Atlanta, authorities are trying to give officers an increased understanding of hate crimes and emphasizing more community outreach and a greater response to complaints in hopes that more victims speak up.
The department’s two-person LGBT Liaison Unit has been working to build relationships within the city’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, as well as increasing awareness, training and knowledge of LGBT issues within the department itself.
“One of the biggest challenges that I think will take many years to resolve is the general mistrust the police have with the LGBT community, especially in terms of LGBT people of color,” said Officer Eric King, who is assigned to the unit. “The community has to feel confident that if they experience something, that we will be there to not only listen but take action and help them toward some sort of resolution, whatever that might be.”
Another challenge for law enforcement is that investigators looking into hate crimes must gather evidence not only of what happened, but why. And that’s not always easy to determine.
Serious injuries might indicate an assault. But without clear evidence that the infliction of the injuries was motivated by bias, it can be difficult to say whether the assault qualifies as a hate crime.
The FBI standard is that a reasonable person would conclude the perpetrator was motivated by bias. The agency’s guidelines suggest investigators take into account whether victims are members of a minority group where the incidents took place and whether a substantial portion of the community believes bias was the motive.
“In the course of any investigation, there is not always a bright line saying, ‘OK, it’s a hate crime,'” said Brian Edgell, a supervisor with the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. “It’s really up to their discretion, and we give them the mechanism to report that to us.”
David Beltier and his boyfriend were on an afternoon walk with their standard poodle, Beauty, in the Portland suburb of Hillsboro in March 2013. Beauty’s fur had been dyed a light pink color, and a few passers-by already had made derogatory remarks.
Then a man yelling gay slurs out the window of an SUV made a U-turn, headed straight for Beltier and his boyfriend. Beltier said he seemed determined to fight, so he told his boyfriend to take Beauty and get away.
“I knew something bad was going to happen,” he said.
Beltier, who had martial arts training, was able to block most of the man’s punches, but the assailant then grabbed a metal tool from his SUV and hit Beltier in the head.
The man was arrested and ultimately faced a federal hate crime charge, in addition to state charges. After a federal jury deadlocked, he pleaded guilty to an assault charge in state court and the federal case was dismissed.
Yet what happened to Beltier was never included in the FBI’s national hate crimes report because the Hillsboro Police Department was among those found to be not reporting to the FBI during the six-year period.
Hillsboro Police Lt. Michael Rouches blamed the lapse on a technical problem between his department and the state, and said the problem was discovered last year when the department was in the process of applying for a grant and noticed the data was missing.
The lack of reporting should not suggest the department didn’t aggressively investigate what happened to Beltier and his boyfriend, Rouches said.
“We ran with it as soon as we got it, and we got to the bottom of it,” he said.
To this day, however, Beltier avoids walking in the dark and hates to be alone, although he takes comfort from the bystanders who stopped to help him and tracked down his assailant.
He feels grateful to the police — but also he wants to know that future hate crimes will be reported.
“The community needs to be aware that this is happening in their own town,” he said. “It will give everyone the chance to help fix it and bring a better future.”
Associated Press data journalist Michelle Minkoff in Washington, D.C., Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu and researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.
Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AP_Christina .
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