Federal Hate Crime Statistics:
Why the Numbers Don’t Add Up
March 2, 2005; revised January 9, 2006
Many anti-gay activists point to the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics to claim that gays and lesbians are not “oppressed” compared to anybody else. But as is often the case with such claims, there is more to the story than meets the eye.
Federal law requires the FBI to obtain quarterly hate crime statistics from local law enforcement agencies, and to compile them in annual reports. The categories of hate crimes include those motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity and disability. Congress requires the FBI to track sexual orientation even though there are no provisions in federal law for prosecuting hate crimes based on sexual orientation. The 2003 report1 released in November, 2004, shows the number of hate crime incidents by category looking like this:,
|Hate Crime Incidents for All 50 States|
Keep in mind that these numbers are of hate crime incidents. According to the FBI, each incident may include more than one crime or more than one victim. For example, an attack against two victims constitutes two crimes but may be counted as one incident. An assault and property damage against one victim would be two crimes, yet they are counted as only one incident if they occur at the same time. In these 7,490 incidents, there were a total of 8,715 offenses against 9,100 victims perpetrated by 6,934 known offenders for 2003.
As you can see, sexual orientation was the third largest category for reported hate crime incidents. But on closer look, it quickly becomes apparent that this report doesn’t tell the full story.
When Congress directed the FBI to collect hate crime statistics in 1990, they neglected to require local law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes to the FBI. In other words, while the FBI is required to collect the data, nobody is required to supply it to the FBI. Furthermore, Congress didn’t provide funding to local law enforcement agencies to defray the cost of collecting and reporting these statistics to the FBI. So when local police departments provide hate crime statistics to the FBI, they do so voluntarily.
Consequently, many jurisdictions didn’t file reports for 2003. While 11,909 law enforcement agencies nationwide participated in the data reporting program, they covered just under 83% of the total population. Agencies with jurisdictions over some 17% of the population didn’t participate.
What’s more, many of agencies that did participate didn’t consistently file reports every quarter. Even if there are hate crimes to report, they are still asked to provide a report saying so. Most participating agencies file are diligent in filing report, but about a tenth of them fail to file reports for all four quarters.
Why Are Some States Better At Reporting Than Others?
While 87% isn’t bad coverage, the coverage not only varies tremendously from state to state, but from quarter to quarter. Ten states achieve a perfect compliance rate; 100% of their populations are fully covered by police reports to the FBI. But so few police departments in another ten states participate that less than half of those states’ populations are represented by the FBI’s hate crime statistics. In Georgia, police departments with jurisdiction over only 19% of the population participated. In Alabama, that coverage was just over 5%. Hawaii didn’t participate at all.
Part of the problem may be with the differences in how various state laws treat hate crimes. According to the Anti-Defamation League2, only fourteen states required local jurisdictions to report hate crime statistics for sexual orientation at the state level. What’s more, only thirty states provided any sort of penalty (civil or criminal) for hate crimes based on sexual orientation. Interestingly, Maryland and Michigan required jurisdictions to collect hate crime statistics based on sexual orientation despite the fact that their state laws didn’t provide for penalties based on sexual orientation — a situation which mirrors federal law.
So it’s fair to ask: does this jumble of definitions and requirements at the state level influence how local police departments report hate crimes to the FBI at the federal level? Think about it — if state law doesn’t provide any additional penalties for a hate crime based on sexual orientation, why would the local police department expend scarce resources to perform the extra detective work needed to determine whether a crime was a hate crime? And if state law doesn’t require a local police department to track hate crimes based on sexual orientation, how much care would that department take in reporting them for what amounts to be a voluntary and unfunded federal program?
So I decided to check into this using the FBI’s own data. When I examined the FBI’s 2003 statistics for those twelve states3 which 1) impose penalties for hate crimes based on sexual orientation and 2) require reporting statistics based on sexual orientation at the state level, the data looks very different from the national totals.
|Hate Crime Incidents For All 50 States||12 States With Penalties And Require Reporting For Sexual Orientation|
Two things stand out. First, look at the population coverage. when state laws require law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes based on sexual orientation at the state level, those agencies are much more likely to participate in the FBI’s hate crime reporting system on the federal level. These twelve states reported statistics for jurisdictions covering 90.4% of their total populations, some 7.6% percentage points above the national average. Three of the states provided a perfect 100% coverage, and four more had more than 99% of their populations covered.4
The second thing we see is this: hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation zoomed firmly into second place for states which required their police departments to determine whether the crime is a hate crime or not. Not only that, but these twelve states account for more than half of all hate crimes based on sexual orientation reported by the FBI for 2003.
Now let’s compare this to the nineteen states5 which neither 1) provide penalties for crimes based on sexual orientation nor 2) require their reporting at the state level:
|Hate Crime Incidents For All 50 States||12 States With Penalties And Require Reporting For Sexual Orientation||19 States With No Penalties Nor Reporting Requirements For Sexual Orientation|
As you can see, law enforcement agencies in these nineteen states were much less likely to participate. The FBI’s statistics for these states represent barely two-thirds of those states’ population. What’s more, participation varied widely among these states. Only four states had more than 99% of their populations covered. In six states, less than half of their populations were covered by participating agencies.6 This doesn’t even include Hawaii, which didn’t participate at all.
And notice how drastically the Sexual Orientation category drops as a percentage of all hate crime categories. Percentage-wise, the sexual orientation category took the steepest drop when compared to the states which impose penalties and require reporting based on sexual orientation. Indeed, these nineteen states reported barely a third of the overall number of hate crimes for sexual orientation as the those states which impose penalties and require reporting based on sexual orientation. Clearly, state laws have a dramatic affect in how local police departments report hate crimes to the FBI.
A Blind Eye
Local communities are loathe to be associated with hate crimes. Many of these states share a long history of prejudice and violence which results in strong social, economic, and political pressures to avoid the stigma that hate crimes can bring to the community. For example, Alabama and Mississippi only reported a single hate crime incident each for all of 2003. Meanwhile North Dakota, the least populous state with the nation’s lowest crime rate — a quarter of Alabama’s and Mississippi’s overall crime rate — managed to come up with 18 incidents.
It often only takes a missing wallet for police to classify a crime as an ordinary robbery and assault rather than a gay bashing, regardless of the threats and epithets used during the crime.
When Hate Crimes Are’t Counted
Some very serious crimes can be overlooked in the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics. For example, in the 2004 FBI Hate Crimes report, Daniel Fetty Doesn’t Count.
That reluctance is only magnified when local authorities decline to investigate the possibility of an anti-gay hate crime when state law doesn’t define it. A police spokesman for the Montgomery, Alabama police department was asked whether the investigation of a gay man’s brutal beating was being treated as a hate crime. He responded that since sexual orientation is not included in Alabama’s hate crime statute, the crime would not be considered a hate crime.7 While his stance is in conformity with Alabama state law, it is at odds with the reporting requirements of the federal Hate Crimes Act. Nevertheless it’ a safe bet that this incident won’t make it into the FBI’s statistics for 2005.
But even if the local police officials are willing to consider investigating the crime as a hate crime, they may not have been properly trained to identify hate crimes. Only fourteen states require their law enforcement agencies to undergo such highly-specialized training. This can leave investigators ill-equiped to identify clues that could lead to a hate crime determination.
In the end, there are many ways in which the process of hate crime reporting can break down, and evidence suggests that the under-reporting is quite significant. The U.S. Department of Justice sponsored a survey of agencies that were listed by the FBI has having reported no hate crimes. Fully 31% of those agencies reported in the survey that they actually did have at least one hate crime occur in their jurisdiction.8 The same survey noted that 37% of agencies which did not participate in the hate crimes collection program also noted that they had investigated one or more hate crimes in their jurisdiction.
But it’s not just differences in state laws and local attitudes which affect national hate crime reporting. Depending on the nature of the crime, there are differences in the way the FBI directs law enforcement agencies to report them. Most states use the 1930’s-era Summary Reporting System to report general crime statistics to the FBI, and under that system property crimes (vandalism, arson, etc.) are not reported until after an arrest is made.
But this method for reporting property crimes is different from the FBI’s Hate Crime Data Collection Guidelines9 These guidelines ask police agencies to report all hate crimes against property regardless of whether an arrest has been made. With this inconsistency built into the system, it’s impossible to know how many police departments are careful enough to notice the difference when they report hate crime statistics to the FBI. This discrepancy may have a significant impact on how crimes are reported based on sexual orientation. Many gay and lesbian homes, organizations and businesses suffer graffiti, arson, broken windows and other property damage for which no arrest is ever made. The FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics for 2003 show that property crimes based on sexual orientation far outstrip all other categories besides race..
Gay-rights opponents often accuse GLBT anti-violence advocates of inflating their numbers whenever they report a higher level of hate crimes than what’s reflected in the FBI’s statistics. But given the deficiencies of the FBI’s own data, it is clear that the true story behind the official statistics is worse than we know. How much worse, no one can say.
1. FBI. Hate Crime Statistics, 2003. (Washington: US Department of Justice, November, 2004). Available online at http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/03hc.pdf.
2.Anti-Defamation League, Hate Crimes Laws. Web page (2003) http://www.adl.org/99hatecrime/print.asp
3. According to the Anti-Defamation League, states which provide penalties and require reporting based on sexual orientation as of 2003) are: Arizona, California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Washington.
4. Population coverage for states which provided penalties and required reporting based on sexual orientation were as follows: Arizona: 96.7%, California: 100%, Connecticut: 90.9%, District of Columbia: 100%, Florida: 99.7%, Illinois: 40.6%, Iowa: 97.5%, Minnesota: 99.4%, Nevada: 100%, Oregon: 15.4%, Texas: 99.9%, Washington: 99.0%.
Population coverage was calculated using the figures of population covered for each state in Table 12 of the Hate Crime Statistics report to the 2003 population estimates provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau. “Table 1. Annual estimates of the population for the United States and States, and for Puerto Rico: April 1, 2000 to July 1,2004.” NST-EST2004-01 (December 22, 2004), available online at http://www.census.gov/popest/states/tables/NST-EST2004-01.pdf.
5. According to the Anti-Defamation League, states which do not provide for penalties and do not require reporting based on sexual orientation as of 2003) are: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming.
6. Population coverage for states which did not provide penalties and did not require reporting based in sexual orientation in 2003 were: Alabama: 5.2%, Alaska: 41.8%, Arkansas: 42.8%, Colorado: 91.3%, Georgia: 18.6%, Idaho: 99.4%, Indiana: 49.8%, Mississippi: 28.7%, Montana: 92.3%, North Carolina: 99.2%, North Dakota: 86.7%, Ohio: 74.4%, Oklahoma: 100%, South Carolina: 99.9%, South Dakota: 65.8%, Utah: 75.5%, Virginia: 98.9%, West Virginia: 94.6%, Wyoming: 58.8%.
7. Bonvillian, Crystal. “Beating not considered a hate crime.” Montgomery Advertiser (November 16, 2005). Available online at http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051116/NEWS/511160333/1001.
8. McDevitt, Jack; Balboni, Jennifer M.; Bennett, Susan. Improving the Quality and Accuracy of Bias Crime Statistics Nationally. (Washington: Justice Research and Statistics Association, July 2000). The Executive Summary is available online at http://www.cj.neu.edu/pdf/BJS_1_execSummary.pdf.
9. FBI. Hate Crime Data Collection Guidelines. (Washington: US Department of Justice, October, 1999). Available online at http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/hatecrime.pdf.