How Hate Crimes Like the Killing of Sasezley Richardson Are Never Counted

A 'Flagrant Disregard for Common Sense'
Russell is not alone. Officials in Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah and West Virginia say they, too, insert zeroes for non-reporting agencies.

In Georgia, Willene White-Smith of the state UCR office says there are "two types of zero" — zeroes reported by agencies and others, where state officials "just assume you had zero." This practice was documented in several states:

  • In Minnesota, Cathy Leatherman of the Department of Public Safety says, "If we don't get a report from an agency, that is a zero."
  • In Oregon, Susan Hardy of the Oregon State Police says, "If they don't send us a form, that's all there is to it. We put down a zero."
  • In Utah, Ogden Records Supervisor Lupe Huntley said that her city did not submit a hate crime report, but that state officials "just put down zero."
  • In West Virginia, state police Sgt. S. Gayle Midkiff, in charge of UCR reporting, says officials "assume it's a zero" if agencies don't report.

North Carolina is one state where the false zeroes actually got some public attention. In May of this year, an investigation by Charlotte's WSOC-TV found that state officials had filled in "hundreds" of zeroes for non-reporting agencies, despite the fact that at least some of them definitely had hate crimes in 1999.

Congressman Mel Watt, an attorney trained at Yale Law School, told the television station that the data manipulation represented a "flagrant disregard for common sense" that could have an important impact on public policy. He suggested that congressional hearings might be in order, although none have yet been called.

Reacting to the news stories, the FBI sent letters to North Carolina officials directing them to halt the practice.

Indeed, the FBI concedes false-zero reporting is widespread.

"We are aware that states do report zeroes for places that are non-reporting," Mary Victoria Pyne, who heads up the FBI office that compiles annual hate crime statistics reports, told the Intelligence Report.

"We have cautioned and cautioned and cautioned against this. We have tried to make the case clearly that zero is data and when you report zero for non-reporting you are creating [false] data."

And then there is the strange case of Illinois. Every Illinois community listed in the FBI's 1999 report experienced at least one hate crime. As it turns out, that is partly because officials there rightly refuse to report a zero for an agency that does not file a report.

But the problem, says Tim Bray of the state police's research bureau, is that there are no forms for Illinois law enforcement departments to use to report a zero. That means that only those with hate crimes get reported, which is simply another way of skewing the data.

Just 'Drunk and Goofing Around'
In addition to the false zeroes phenomenon, there are several other factors that contribute to the systematic underreporting of hate crimes — from a lack of training in recognizing hate crimes, the false belief that relatively minor crimes need not be reported to the FBI, and an over-eagerness to write off the bias aspect of criminal incidents, to outright opposition to the very notion of hate crimes.

As a result, the Intelligence Report found, law enforcement jurisdictions in at least 10 states failed to report 1999 incidents that surely qualified as hate crimes.

After a building and car were spray-painted with neo-Nazi graffiti in Amenia, N.Y., officials did not report a hate crime because the incident was "not of a level that the FBI would get," according to Dutchess County Sheriff's Lt. Gary Basher.

In fact, the FBI records even minor hate crimes like vandalism. And the two suspects were actually charged with felony criminal mischief, plus two misdemeanors.

When anti-Semitic, anti-black and anti-Hawaiian slurs were painted on 14 student-owned cars at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the incident went unreported. "We thought it was just juveniles playing a practical joke," said university police Sgt. Don Drake, who maintains department records. "And [the graffiti] wasn't on a Jewish person's car."

In fact, the FBI manual for reporting hate crimes says that "even when offenders erroneously target the victims [by mistaking their heritage], their offenses are still considered 'suspected bias incidents.'" And at least one black victim said that his car was defaced with anti-black slurs.

In Port St. Lucie, Fla., a swastika and other graffiti scrawled on walls outside a black woman's apartment were not reported. An official in the department records division said such crimes are treated "as criminal mischief, not a hate crime."

In Oregon, Wis., a swastika spray-painted on a home was not reported. "The family wasn't Jewish and it was a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds and they were drunk and goofing around," said Officer John Pierce, who handled the case.

And in Meridian, Miss., racist graffiti spray-painted on the home of a former major league baseball player — and signed "KKK" — was "not investigated as a hate crime" and so went unreported. The slurs were discovered by the black athlete's seventh-grade son.

Raising the Ante
Criminologists say that minimizing or even ignoring such crimes is a grave mistake.

"When police turn their backs on juveniles who spray-paint graffiti on walls and play their boom boxes too loudly, they take a risk of seeing teenage crime escalate to offenses like aggravated assault, rape and murder," says Jack Levin, the Northeastern expert.

"In the same way, when we regard hate crime incidents like vandalism and desecration of cemeteries as mere childish pranks, we inadvertently cause the perpetrators to raise the ante."

Despite the views of Levin and other hate crime experts, a number of officers and police chiefs express strong opposition to the very concept of hate crimes. For instance, in Texas, one of 45 states with hate crime penalty enhancement laws, San Augustine Police Chief Ken Delacerda seemed to dismiss the entire idea.

"I always had a problem with hate crime laws, anyhow," he told the Report. "I mean, you don't shoot people because you love them."

Overall, experts said, the answer to these sorts of problems is training. John Holland, a long-time law enforcement officer who led Federal Law Enforcement Training Center efforts to teach officers about hate crime until 2000, says that many are unsure what a hate crime is and how to report one.

He adds that training is rare in police academies and even in most police departments. "The difficulty is that most officers want to do the job but they need the training," Holland says.

Donald Green, the Yale University political scientist, says another key factor leading to underreporting is fear of negative publicity — publicity that can gravely damage a community's reputation.

"Especially as demographic change is moving into suburban and exurban areas, there is even less attention to the issue of reporting," Green says. "They don't want to do it. ... And that only exacerbates the problem. We need to address this embarrassment factor."

Disappearing Hate Crimes
The Department of Justice-funded survey unearthed a series of systemic problems. Led by Northeastern University professor Jack McDevitt and Joan Weiss of the Justice Research and Statistics Association, the study team found that time and again, senior officers said hate crimes had been reported to the state agencies or the FBI — and that these crimes were not reflected in the FBI reports.

"Very often," McDevitt and Weiss wrote, "these representatives were disturbed to find out that their jurisdiction was listed as not having reported or reporting zero information about hate crimes to the Uniform Crime Reports because they personally had been involved in the investigation of one or more incidents of bias crime" (emphasis in the original).

In one particularly egregious example, the study's authors wrote that "one capital city in the South reported on our survey that it had (and reported) 20 hate crimes; the official UCR reports indicate this city had zero incidents."

Recontacting surveyed departments to try to get to the bottom of these "procedural pitfalls," the researchers found three general themes.

First, a number of jurisdictions said their definition of hate crime differed from the generally more inclusive definition of the federal government, apparently leading to some confusion about what to report.

Second, several respondents said that "crime data in general was highly susceptible to political influences," either to make the jurisdiction appear safer to the public or to make it appear worse in order to win federal dollars.

Third, many respondents indicated that information about the bias motivation of crimes was being lost during the state data collection process. In many cases, crimes are coded simply on the basis of the underlying charge — assault, for example — and the bias motivation noted by an investigator in a police report is ignored.

For the five states with no hate crime laws, this problem may be particularly serious. In other cases, crimes are correctly coded at the local level, but then overlooked when the data is compiled by the state.