How Hate Crimes Like the Killing of Sasezley Richardson Are Never Counted
There isn't much question about the race hate that fueled the murder of Sasezley Richardson, a 19-year-old black teenager shot dead as he strolled back from a mall in Elkhart, Ind., with diapers for a friend's baby.
One of the shaven-headed suspects told police he was a member of the violent, white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood, while the other reportedly said he wanted to kill a black person in order to get in.
Police called it a hate crime from the start. Prosecutors agreed, saying Richardson was slain for no other reason than that he was African-American. Neighbors, white and black alike, held two racial unity rallies in Elkhart and raised money to help pay for Richardson's funeral.
But today, Sasezley Richardson isn't even a statistic.
When journalists, law enforcement officials, scholars or others pick up a copy of the FBI's "Hate Crime Statistics: 1999," report, containing the latest available statistics, they won't find anything representing the death of a young man who was trying to put his life together when he was shot on Nov. 17, 1999.
Instead, in the column representing Elkhart, they will find nothing. No hate crimes. Zero.
One decade after the FBI began collecting state hate crime statistics and publishing them under the federal Hate Crime Statistics Act, the national effort to document hate-motivated crime is in shambles. A recent Justice Department study concludes that "the full picture of hate crimes ... has not yet been captured through official data."
And a just-completed survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia by the Intelligence Report illustrates how the system, already hobbled by the voluntary nature of reporting, is riddled with errors, failures to pass along information, misunderstanding of what constitutes a hate crime and even outright falsification of data.
While the published hate crime totals have been running recently at some 8,000 cases a year, the real figure is probably closer to 50,000.
"The overall numbers are worthless," says Donald P. Green, a Yale University political scientist and hate crime expert. "The entire reporting system," adds Jack Levin, another hate crime expert and director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston, "is plagued with errors."
Doomed From the Start
The Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 was passed by Congress in the wake of an outbreak of anti-gay violence in the late 1980s. It was groundbreaking, the first federal civil rights law to include sexual orientation as a class (conservatives did insert language announcing the statute was not meant "to promote or encourage homosexuality").
And although it initially only required the Justice Department to compile and publish data for five years, that was later extended indefinitely.
"The faster we can find out about these hideous crimes," then-President George Bush said in a hopeful speech at the April 23, 1990, signing ceremony for the law, "the faster we can track down the bigots who commit them."
Bush understood that in order to deal effectively with the problem, policymakers needed to comprehend its shape and size. "Think of the FBI statistics that showed murders committed by teenagers increasing dramatically from 1986 through the early 1990s," explains Levin, the hate crime expert.
"Armed with this information, we were able to push for more after-school programs, community centers, mentors and tutors in local schools. These statistics are not just an academic exercise. They are an extremely important means whereby policy is affected."
But the law was doomed from the start. Like reporting under other national crime statutes, reporting under the federal hate crime act is voluntary. But unlike data collection under other statutes, collecting hate crime statistics has been controversial — so much so that over one-third of police jurisdictions have opted not to participate in the effort.
In some jurisdictions that have chosen to participate at the official level, opposition or indifference among personnel responsible for gathering the figures has compromised the effort and has discouraged already reluctant victims to come forward.
And because hate crime categories are relatively new and vary among jurisdictions, even conscientious officials have had problems reporting accurately.
Given these difficulties, law enforcement officers need training — both to overcome their resistance and to provide uniform reporting standards. Most have never gotten it.
The gaping holes in the reporting system have been no secret. Alabama, for instance, has not reported a hate crime for years — including 1999, the year when Billy Jack Gaither was savagely beaten to death and his body set afire in a notorious anti-gay murder in the town of Sylacauga.
Quite apart from the obvious bias involved in the Gaither murder, it was hardly plausible that Alabama had zero hate crimes in the same year that California recorded 2,295 such offenses.
Then, in September 2000, a virtually unnoticed academic study funded by the Justice Department found a "major information gap" in hate crime reporting. Based on a survey of 2,657 law enforcement agencies, the study estimated that some 37% of agencies that did not submit reports nevertheless had at least one hate crime. In addition, about 31% of the agencies with reports of zero hate crimes did, in fact, have at least one.
The study's co-authors — the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research at Northeastern University and the Justice Research and Statistics Association in Washington, D.C. — estimated that almost 6,000 law enforcement agencies likely experienced at least one hate crime that went unreported.
The published numbers, in other words, were grossly off.
The Case of the False Zeroes
The Intelligence Report sought to uncover some of the concrete reasons for the failure of law enforcement agencies to report or for their errors in reporting.
To this end, the magazine spoke to law enforcement officials in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and asked them about specific incidents that were reported in the media but failed to show up in the FBI hate crime statistics.
Most of the incidents selected involved graffiti and similar vandalism. These incidents may be minor crimes, but they often serve as early warning signs of more serious trouble. In addition, they are difficult to mistake for non-hate crimes because they usually involve racial epithets or symbols.
What the magazine found was an array of problems, ranging from bureaucratic error to intentional omission.
Most troubling, perhaps, are the cases of false zeroes.
At least seven states, the Intelligence Report found, represented to the FBI that certain police departments had reported no hate crimes — when, in fact, those departments had chosen not to file reports at all.
In other words, instead of putting a department into the non-reporting column, state agencies charged with reporting to the federal government simply categorized those departments as having no hate crimes.
That assumption, of course, is wrong almost as often as it is right — and it has the effect of falsifying data, making states that submit false zeroes look good at the expense of those that do not. The dimensions of this problem may be enormous; fully 83% of jurisdictions that reported in 1999 said they had no hate crimes.
Wyoming may be typical of the "false zero" states. According to the FBI's "Hate Crime Statistics: 1999" compilation, 55 of 57 law enforcement agencies in the state reported no hate crimes at all — a record that other states might envy.
But things may not be as rosy in Wyoming — nicknamed the "Equality State" — as the figures suggest. Richard Russell, the manager of Wyoming's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system, is the official responsible for compiling hate crime figures from Wyoming jurisdictions and then forwarding them to the FBI.
Russell concedes that he sometimes fills in an unverified zero when local police departments do not send in their reports — something that happens often, he says.