Sexual Orientation Hate Crimes: Did They Really Go Up?

Jim Burroway

November 27th, 2009

The FBI has issued its annual Hate Crimes Statistics for 2008, and there’s a lot of talk about how much the statistics for hate crimes based on sexual orientation went up. But before we jump on that bandwagon, Andrew Sullivan points us to an important caution by Mark Thompson who sees what he considers an “annual misuse of hate crime statistics“:

Every year around this time, the FBI publishes its statutorily-mandated annual report on hate crime statistics.  Like clockwork, every year that report gets misused no matter what the FBI does to discourage that misuse (previous examples of misuse here).  This year is no exception, as several prominent liberal sites have picked up on the lede that this year\’s report shows a “sharp increase” in anti-gay hate crime while also noting that race-based hate crimes barely decreased at all.

The problem is that these particular FBI statistics are virtually useless for evaluating year-to-year trends – always have been, always will be.  This year, the FBI itself went out of its way to warn against such readings, stating “our Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program doesn\’t report trends in hate crime stats—yearly increases or decreases often occur because the number of agencies who report to us varies from year to year.”

Reporting hate crimes to the FBI is voluntary.  Local law enforcement agencies aren’t required to participate in the FBI’s hate crime statistics gathering program, nor do they receive any federal funds when they do so. This means that year t0 year, different segments of the total U.S. population are represented in the hate crime statistics depending on whether the local law enforcement agency chooses to participate.

In 2003, 11,909 law enforcement agencies covering 82.3% of the population participated in the program. In 2008, that number reached a record high of 13,690 agencies covering 88.6% of the population. By the way, that’s up from 13,241 last year, in which 86.3% of the population was covered. Meanwhile, the U.S. added an estimated 2.4 million people to the overall population according the the U.S. Census Bureau.

All of that together is a complicated way of noting that the population covered by the 2008 hate crimes statistics is 3.4% larger than that covered by the 2007 statistics. This means that even if hate crimes went up 3.4% over last year, it means that the rate of hate crimes is effectively unchanged.

So having said all that, let’s look at the hate crimes statistics themselves. The FBI collects three sets of hate crime statistics: hate crime incidents, offenses, and victims. According to the FBI’s definition, an incident represents a single occurrence of one or more hate crime offenses (each offense being an assault, a robbery, an act of vandalism, etc.) against one or more victims. The statistics for 2008 look like this (2007 data in parentheses):

Total Hate Crime Incidents, 2008
Total Hate Crime Offenses,
Total Hate Crime Victims, 2008
Race 3,992
Religion 1,519
Sexual Orientation 1,297
Ethnicity 894
Disability 78
TOTAL 7,783
Totals don’t add up due to additional
multi-category hate crime incidents, offenses and victims.

From a raw numerical standpoint, hate crimes went up broadly in most categories (race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.)  and by most measures (incidents, offenses and victims). So now it’s time to factor in the growth of reporting agencies as well as the growth of the overall U.S. population. And to try to discern longer-term trends, let’s go back to 2000 and see what it all looks like. The following graphs show what the hate crimes data looks like over the past decade as a proportion to the size of the population covered in those respective years.

incidentsOffensesVictimsThe most notable trend can be seen in reported hate crimes based on race., which have been decreasing dropping through most of the decade. Also notable is the slow but inconsistently lowering of hate crimes based on ethnicity following a huge spike in 2001, caused by a large surge in crimes against people of Middle Eastern backgrounds following 9/11. (Anti-Islamic sentiment also contributed to a spike in religious-based hate crimes the same year.)

But for hate crimes based on sexual orientation, the message appears mixed. One might be tempted to conclude that there has been a slight overall rise in hate crimes based on sexual orientation over the past three years. But given the many issues which contribute to inaccuracies in reporting of hate crimes based on sexual orientation, it is virtually impossible to categorically announce such a trend, as many other web sites have done. The kind of changes that we’re seeing year-to-year amount to statistical noise are clouded by many factors including:

  • Changes in law enforcement agencies who choose to volunteer in the voluntary reporting program. Each year, some drop out as others are added, all with different demographics in their populations).
  • Differences in how investigators are trained to investigate hate crime bias, as well as inconsistencies in how prosecutors pursue hate crime enhancements.
  • Differences in state law, where many states do not cover sexual orientation in their hate crime statutes, giving local investigators and prosecutors little incentive to even investigate and report bias motivation where sexual orientation is concerned. We delved into that in greater detail in 2006 here.
  • Many local jurisdictions are increasingly sensitive to hate crime bias based on sexual orientation. Increases in reports of hate crimes based on sexual orientation may merely reflect better reporting of hate crimes, and not a rise in the actual number or rate of such crimes.

And with this years’ passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, observable trends over the next several years will be massively complicated as aspects of the law dealing with local assistance and reporting go into effect. With all these factors in play, it would take a considerable swing to be able to discern a real trend in hate crimes based on sexual orientation. That large swing isn’t there, and any attempt to divine a trend based on sexual orientation is unjustified. Mark Thompson is right. There just isn’t quite enough there there.

But there is one disturbing trend that you can legitimately draw from the latest hate crime statistics: hate crimes based on sexual orientation are noticeably more violent than crimes motivated by other biases.

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