ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
How many hate crimes took place in the U.S. this year? Well, not even the FBI can answer that question with certainty. There has been an increase in reports of attacks based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation since Donald Trump was elected president. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on the difficulties of tracking hate crimes.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The FBI does release a national count of hate crimes every year, and its latest report says there were 5,850 hate crimes in 2015. But law enforcement officials will tell you that number is not exact.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LORETTA LYNCH: We know that there are many more hate crimes in communities, in all communities across this country that go unreported.
WANG: That was U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaking in early December about the FBI's latest hate crimes report. It defines hate crimes as a criminal offense against a person or property motivated by bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity.
The report relies on police and sheriff's departments to send in numbers voluntarily, and those numbers help lawmakers determine how to allocate law enforcement resources. Lynch said there's more work to do to improve reporting, especially since hate crimes, including intimidation, assault and vandalism, increased more than 6 percent compared to 2014.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LYNCH: Behind the pages of the reports lie communities who are now more afraid than before and more afraid than any American should ever feel.
WANG: Some advocacy groups are trying to quantify the sources of that fear faster than the FBI. After the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center started collecting reports of hate crimes, plus other types of harassment that fall outside of what the FBI considers a hate crime. The center's president, Richard Cohen, says so far, they've compiled more than a thousand incidents.
RICHARD COHEN: Well, look; we're just getting at the tip of the iceberg, but I think the trends of what we're seeing are very, very real.
WANG: Most of the reported attacks targeted immigrants, and Cohen says overall, attacks appear to be more widespread than before.
COHEN: People are telling us again and again that they've never seen anything like this in their neighborhoods, that they've never been the victims of anything like this before.
WANG: The number of reports has dropped over the weeks, but Cohen says he's worried about another uptick around Donald Trump's inauguration. For now, the Southern Poverty Law Center plans to keep counting bias-related incidents at least through January. One big issue for advocacy groups is the time it takes to follow up and verify each report.
COREY SAYLOR: Sadly, you work longer hours. That's the only solution at this point.
WANG: Corey Saylor leads the Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and he says another problem with counting hate crimes is underreporting by targeted communities. Some may not trust law enforcement officials, and others may be overwhelmed by all the attacks they receive.
SAYLOR: Many mosques, they get so many that they just don't bother. So somebody will have left a message on your voicemail saying they're going to come and kill everybody, and people will just hit delete because they've become desensitized to it.
WANG: Saylor says on the law enforcement side, some agencies may be reluctant to press hate crime charges because it can be hard to prove a person's bias as a motive. He adds so far, he's seen no indication that improving hate crime tracking nationally will be a priority for the Trump administration. That's why Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League says his and other groups are focusing more on the state level, specifically the five states that don't have hate crime laws - Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming.
JONATHAN GREENBLATT: There are new majorities and new officials in place, so we've got to look state by state to determine, OK, where's it reasonable to believe we can actually get a hate crimes law on the books?
WANG: And once they're on the books, he says it may give us a better handle on the numbers. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.