Fudging the Numbers on Hate Crimes

Mike Pesca reports on how some activist groups often use a less-than-scientific approach to obtaining statistics that support their claims about hate crimes.

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This week, Maryland will likely join 30 other states that denote violence against gays as a hate crime. These crimes can be hard to categorize because states have differing standards as to what they are. Advocacy groups offer studies, but as DAY TO DAY's Mike Pesca reports, whether these statistical reports on hate and bias are about anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim or anti-gay crimes, they often have one thing in common: dubious methodology.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Two weeks ago, CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, released its annual report on the status of Muslim civil rights in the United States. As the only report of its kind, CAIR's study normally gets a fair amount of media attention, and this year was no exception. Articles in the LA Times, Washington Post, and the AP echoed the one in The New York Times headlined: Muslims report 50 percent increase in bias crimes. The report's author, CAIR's national legal director, Arsalan Iftikhar, says the organization found 1,522 incidents.

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (National Legal Director, CAIR): Now, this ranged from everything from employment discrimination to the denial of public accommodation to airport profiling to anti-Muslim physical violence and hate crimes.

PESCA: That last item, hate crimes, is the only one actually tracked by an organization other than CAIR--in this case, the FBI and its federally mandated reports. But any bias incident, from a Muslim being yelled at from a passing car, to a Muslim being profiled on a plane, can wind up in CAIR's report. Iftikhar explains one incident which will show up in next year's study.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Over Christmas last year, we had a group of 40 American Muslims returning from a conference in Toronto, and American citizens who were detained at the border for in excess of seven hours, fingerprinted, searched, photographed with threat of arrest for non-compliance. As an attorney, I consider this--and so does the ACLU--consider this to be an unlawful arrest.

PESCA: By CAIR's reporting methods, those 40 travelers delayed in Toronto would count as 40 separate incidents. The category of unreasonable arrest was the largest single category of civil rights violations CAIR counted. While CAIR's report refers to the well over 1,200 arrests of Muslim and Arab men after September 11th, the official statistics reflect only cases CAIR can document. Last year, that number was 385. Iftikhar acknowledges that some of the cases in the report should not have been included. Soon after it was issued, the report was jumped on by a few conservative commentators who called it inaccurate. Two different men, originally reported as victims, have been charged with setting fire to their own businesses. Iftikhar says the removal of those cases does not affect the overall trend the report documents. Even so, the vagaries in the numbers point to the difficulty of compiling accurate statistics.

Mark Potok, of the hate crime-monitoring Southern Poverty Law Center, says his organization gave up quantifying bias as a fruitless pursuit years ago.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Southern Poverty Law Center): I think that the better policy for independent groups, watchdog groups and so on, is to, as much as possible, stick scrupulously to the truth. And in my opinion, the truth is that it is not possible to say whether hate crimes are going up or down. The material to make judgments like that, the statistical material, simply isn't out there.

PESCA: For this, Potok faults the government or rather the governments of the many states and municipalities which often have differing standards of defining and reporting hate crime. In a report for the Southern Poverty Law Center called Discounting Hate, Potok concluded that hate crime statistics are plagued with inaccuracy. That's a big problem because if hate crimes are seriously undercounted, as he believes they are, it affects the allocation of law enforcement dollars. Potok takes a dimmer view of the necessity of reporting bias incidents.

Mr. POTOK: Well, I frankly don't believe it's possible to come up with any kind of remotely accurate count of, quote-unquote, "bias incidents." I mean, after all, bias incidents are things like telling, you know, an unpleasant joke in a bar that might be offensive to somebody, that kind of thing. I just cannot imagine how it is possible to come up with any kind of accurate count, and I'm not sure it's a terribly useful exercise in any case.

PESCA: Potok's example of a joke in a bar isn't hyperbole. Advocacy groups that collect data on bias include examples of slurs and insults in their reports.

Mr. CLARENCE PATTON (Executive Director, National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs): We track everything from simple verbal harassment up to and including murder.

PESCA: Clarence Patton is the executive director of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which collects data on bias against gays and lesbians. He explains why it's important not to have too narrow a definition of bias.

Mr. PATTON: What we're really trying to do, in a broad sense, is help the community kind of keep an idea of what the atmosphere of hate looks like. And so that atmosphere of hate includes verbal harassment as much as it includes murder.

PESCA: None of the advocacy groups which annually issue studies documenting bias claim that their studies are scientific, a fact which rarely comes up in news reports of those studies. All the groups say they undercount incidents of bias. Alan Schwartz tracks anti-Semitism as research director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Mr. ALAN SCHWARTZ (Research Director, Anti-Defamation League): I think it's fair to say that our numbers represent an underreporting of the full reality. But at the same time, I do think that it is an accurate picture of what is important enough to people to report to us.

PESCA: After all, if there were only 1,821 incidents of anti-Semitism as reported in the ADL's audit, it would mean that there was only one incident per 3,000 Jewish-Americans last year. CAIR's own statistics would mean only one case of bias per 4,500 Muslims, which are ridiculously low numbers. Even so, at least the Anti-Defamation League has provided some kind of baseline in the 25 years since it started its audit, says ADL research director Alan Schwartz. But he also says the ADL's methodology changes.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: We do try to refine it, but I would say that we try to be consistent, as well, so that from one year to the next, you can rely on the categories that you're comparing.

PESCA: The Southern Poverty Law Center's Mark Potok, who's a critic of even attempting to assemble these kinds of statistics, said the group's are well-intentioned. Everything he sees shows that there is bias and hate crime in America; maybe not necessarily more than last year or last decade, but still too much. In attempting to quantify and demonstrate yearly upticks, Potok fears that advocacy groups may damage their credibility and, in doing so, obscure the fact that one hate crime is too many. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY.

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