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

Garbage In, Garbage Out
The Intelligence Report found many examples of these and related kinds of erroneous reporting.

In Beaumont, Calif., police statistician Kari Mendoza said that a 1999 hate crime was apparently recorded in 2000. In Hamilton, Ohio, officials said they are far behind in reporting hate crime statistics because they only recently had an in-service to define hate crime.

In Iowa City, Patsy Porter of the University of Iowa police force said "an error" resulted in an incident — where racist graffiti was painted on a university fieldhouse — never making it into the FBI statistics. In Franklin, Mass., Lt. Steve Semerjian said that the department had "relied on" the district attorney to file hate crime reports. But he said that "something seems screwed up" as he recalled an incident that was not reflected in FBI statistics.

And in Elkhart, Ind., where 19-year-old Sasezley Richardson was murdered on his way home from the mall, Lt. John Ivory said that he had personally filled out a form to report the attack as a hate crime — but that the report was filed months past the deadline for 1999 incidents, possibly because of a computer changeover in late 1999. FBI officials said it would not be included in statistics for 2000.

"We are not doing a very good job as far as I'm concerned," Ivory said of police. "I don't think there has been training in our department on what constitutes a hate crime, so these types of crimes are not being reported or flagged."

Even the FBI, which generally has little responsibility for errors because all it does is compile state statistics, apparently makes its share of mistakes.

Officials in the state of Washington sent the Report a copy of the 1999 statistics they said were sent to the FBI. But a comparison of those numbers with the FBI's hate crime statistics shows that:

  • Three departments reporting hate crimes did not have their numbers included;
  • Three other agencies had different numbers than those in the FBI compilation; and
  • Sixteen jurisdictions reporting zero hate crimes to the state are not in the report at all.

In Alabama, a Law is Ignored
Some states do not participate, or barely participate, in the hate crime reporting, as is their legal right. Hawaii has never reported a hate crime, and it apparently doesn't intend to.

"We likely won't be participating in the FBI program," said Paul Peron, an official in the state attorney general's office who has been helping the state implement its hate crime penalty enhancement law.

He said the FBI's definition of a hate crime "is very broad and very subjective and it's hard to know what somebody had in their heart when they beat somebody up." As a result, Peron said, the state feels prosecutors, not police, should determine motive.

Alabama has submitted reports of a handful of hate crimes, but for years it reported none at all. In the latest, 1999 report, Alabama, like Hawaii, is not listed as reporting at all.

But that is not for want of trying, says Carol Roberts, spokesperson for the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center. Alabama, Roberts says, has a law requiring law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes to the center.

But they don't. "For five or six years, we have had this form available and no one has filled it out," Roberts says. "There is a reluctance on the part of law enforcement to determine the motive of the offender."

The anti-gay murder of Billy Jack Gaither was not reported, she says, because the Alabama hate crime law does not cover sexual orientation, and so officials decided not to submit it to the FBI.

State law, of course, has no direct bearing on which crimes need to be reported federally.

Kansas barely participates in the reporting program, with just the city of Wichita submitting data. But even that data is inaccurate, says Maryann Howerton, manager of the state's Crime Data Information Center.

"Quite honestly," Howerton said this September, "we have not finished keying in 1999, 2000 and 2001 data." The 1999 FBI hate crime statistics report was published last spring.

When police agencies do not consider hate crime reporting to be a priority — when hate crime victims rightly believe that their complaints will not be considered important — the Justice Department report concluded that the victims will be discouraged from coming forward.

Hate crime victims are often members of stigmatized minority groups who are distrustful of the police in the first place. Numerous studies have documented the fact that members of such groups are often reluctant to report hate crimes.

In a 1997 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, for instance, researchers found that only one-third of victims of anti-gay hate crimes reported the incident to police, compared to 57% of the victims of random crimes. The failure of police agencies to take hate crime reporting more seriously exacerbates the underreporting problem.

'Not Important Enough to Record'
Even though national hate crime reporting is voluntary, readers of "Hate Crime Statistics: 1999" are informed that "the 12,122 agencies that participated in the Hate Crime Data Collection Program in 1999 represented nearly 233 million United States inhabitants, or over 85 percent of the Nation's population."

But as both the Report's survey and Northeastern's academic study make clear, such an assertion is seriously misleading. Because of the false zeros and other problems, the report actually covers far fewer people and skews the data in other ways, too.

As Jack Levin points out, for example, Northern states generally do a better job of reporting than Southern ones. Because it's believed that black-on-white hate crimes are more prevalent in the North than the South, Levin thinks "hate crimes against whites may be overestimated" as a result.

"So it's not just sheer numbers that are in doubt, it's also the characteristics of victims and offenders," he says.

What is the real level of hate crime in America? About 8,000 are reported to the FBI annually, and the Northeastern study suggests that there may be at least 6,000 more.

If all states reported hate crimes at the same per capita rate as New Jersey did 1995-99 — a state with a relatively low overall crime rate, but a model hate crime reporting system — then approximately 25,000 hate crimes would have been recorded on an annual basis nationwide.

And, of course, none of this takes into account victims — like closeted gays afraid of being outed — who do not report attacks to police.

Some New Jersey experts estimate, for example, that only about half of all hate crimes there are reported to police — a figure that would swell the nationwide estimate of hate crimes to approximately 50,000, or about six times the number that has been reported in recent years.

The national hate crime statistics published annually by the FBI do have some utility. Levin, Green and other experts agree that certain jurisdictions — New York City, for instance — do a good job of reporting. So their numbers can be useful for scholars and others wanting to study changes within a jurisdiction.

But the numbers cannot tell you whether hate crimes have been going up or down nationally since the first statistics, covering 1991, were published. And they are nearly useless for cross-jurisdictional comparisons.

When criminologists and others wanting to learn from the outbreak of xenophobic hate crimes after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks go to the statistics, they will find that the numbers tell them very little indeed.

And that bothers many serious scholars of hate crime. "We can't make any headway against this violence until we get high quality data," says Green, the Yale University professor. "They missed the rise of right-wing extremism in Germany in the early 1990s because they didn't know about these crimes."

This all comes as one more blow to Deborah Stout, the woman whose son, Sasezley Richardson, died when she agreed to take him off life support three days after he was gunned down in Elkhart.

"They don't treat my son's murder as coming from hate, even though the state of Indiana says it was, the prosecutors say it was, and one of the men already admitted it," Stout told the Intelligence Report.

"I guess his death is not important enough to be recorded."