Hate Crime Statistics Lack Key Facts

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Each year, the FBI releases statistics for hate crimes across the U.S., and they recently issued their report for 2009. What the statistics tell us and just how useful they are is a subject of debate among experts. Some say the data collected isn't always an accurate reflection of the hate crimes committed each year, and that the usefulness of these statistics in preventing future hate crimes is limited.

GUY RAZ, host:

The FBI recently released its hate crime statistics for 2009. The accuracy of the data is a perennial subject of debate among experts. The numbers certainly tell one story about hate crime in America, but as Lara Pellegrinelli reports, there's another story in what's missing from the statistics.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: It happened late one November evening in 2008. On a quiet street near the train station in Patchogue, New York, an Ecuadorian immigrant named Marcelo Lucero was attacked and killed by seven teenagers.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINELLI: This small town in Long Island's Suffolk County has marked the anniversary each year with a vigil to bring people together.

Unidentified Woman: Fellow brothers and sisters, in the spirit of community, let us turn to greet our neighbor. (Speaking Spanish)

PELLEGRINELLI: Many in the Latino community viewed the murder as the culmination of repeated crimes targeting immigrants. But until the time of the murder, the Suffolk County sheriff had consistently reported zero hate crimes. The office has since made some corrections to that data. The U.S. Justice Department has been investigating whether or not the police in Suffolk County have a pattern of ignoring hate crimes against immigrants. Marcelo Lucero's brother, Joselo, believes they do.

Mr. JOSELO LUCERO: That's why the investigation is important because they don't want to report this.

PELLEGRINELLI: One of the lessons to be learned from the Lucero case is that the official hate crime statistics rarely give us the whole picture. In the FBI's newly released report for 2009, there were a total of 6,604 incidents across the United States, ranging from vandalism to homicide. About half of those incidents were motivated by a bias against the victim's race - the largest category. And smaller amounts by religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity and disability.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center says the data isn't able to give us much more than a sense of the trends.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Southern Poverty Law Center): Are anti-Latino hate crimes going up? How bad is it to be a gay person in America? Who is the most attacked minority? But in terms of totals, I think they tell you absolutely nothing at all.

PELLEGRINELLI: Most experts would agree that those totals are low, although, it's hard to get a sense of how low. Victims don't always go to the police and the officers aren't always trained to recognize hate crimes. Daniel Roberts says the process of filing the statistics can be too labor intensive for many police departments. He's the assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division.

Mr. DANIEL ROBERTS (Assistant Director, FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Division): They want to submit. They just don't have the resources often to be able to do that. And to be able to have someone dedicated to crime statistics.

PELLEGRINELLI: The FBI's newly released data shows that the largest number of law enforcement agencies reported ever - over 14,000. But that's still only around 80 percent of all agencies. Because crime reporting is voluntary, accountability is an issue.

Jack McDevitt directs the Institute on Race Injustice at Northeastern University. He says there's an even bigger problem - many agencies report that there weren't any hate crimes, even when there were.

Mr. JACK MCDEVITT (Director, Institute on Race Injustice at Northeastern University): It is conceivable that a small town might not have a hate crime in a year. But we've had major cities like Detroit or New Orleans report zero for a year, which strains the credibility. And that isn't victims not coming forward, that's the police not taking it seriously.

PELLEGRINELLI: Last year, 47 cities with populations over 100,000 reported no hate crimes at all.

Mr. MCDEVITT: What you can't tell is whether - maybe they're helping the victims and they're not just recording the data and sending it to the feds. That's the hope, but maybe it's that they're ignoring the victims and not sending the data in to the feds, and that would be the worst case scenario.

PELLEGRINELLI: The Anti-Defamation League's Michael Lieberman says there's something else you can't tell much about based on the FBI data: the perpetrators.

Mr. MICHAEL LIEBERMAN (Washington Counsel, Anti-Defamation League): The FBI Hate Crime Statistics Act does not require collection of data on arrests. That would be really important, how many people are arrested. The FBI data does not tell us how many hate crimes - how many of these incidents are successfully prosecuted.

PELLEGRINELLI: Often what's known about the offenders is limited to what the victims know at the time they report a crime to the police, the characteristic that made them a target.

Mark Potok tracks hate groups but says they aren't the majority of offenders.

Mr. POTOK: The vast majority of hate crimes, something over 95 percent, are committed by people who are essentially everyday citizens who do not belong to some neo-Nazi group or Klan group.

PELLEGRINELLI: Experts tend to agree that the majority of perpetrators are white and male. Evidence also suggests that a substantial number of them are teenagers. As a result of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed last November, the FBI hate crime statistics will eventually include data on crimes committed by and against juveniles.

Michael Lieberman makes an educated guess at what they will show about young offenders.

Mr. LIEBERMAN: Maybe they're thrill-seeking, maybe it just, you know, happened. You're walking home, you see somebody who looks like they don't belong in your neighborhood, you make a comment, things escalate. So I think that's what we're going to find. And then we need to craft a response and these might truly be preventable crimes.

PELLEGRINELLI: If that's the case, then the police should stand a better chance of stopping patterns of escalating violence like the one that led to the murder of Marcelo Lucero.

For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.

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