Today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released Hate Crime Statistics, 2010, based on information submitted by law enforcement agencies throughout the Nation. These data indicate that 6,628 criminal incidents involving 7,699 offenses were reported in 2010 as a result of bias toward a particular race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity/national origin, or physical or mental disability.
Of the religion-based incidents reported in its data, almost two-thirds of the hate crimes were towards those of Jewish faith, while 13.2 percent were directed towards Muslims. Another almost 10% of the religion-based hate crimes in the report were directed towards “other” groups – a catch-all category that would include Sikhs (as well as Hindus, Buddhists and other religions). The number of hate crimes in the 2010 report was also similar to that in 2009.
I’ve seen this data be reported in a variety of outlets (examples here and here), however, there is sufficient reason to take the results from this database with a grain of salt and to use this data with caution.
The FBI explicitly states that this data may not be useful in making year-to-year comparisons, or even comparisons within elements in the same year’s data set:
Valid assessments about crime, including hate crime, are possible only with careful study and analysis of the various conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction. (See Variables Affecting Crime.) In addition, some data in this publication may not be comparable to those in prior editions of Hate Crime Statistics because of differing levels of participation from year to year. Therefore, the reader is cautioned against making simplistic comparisons between the statistical data of this program and that of others with differing methodologies or even comparing individual reporting units solely on the basis of their agency type.
As a lay person, it seems to me that there are some other noteworthy limitations to the FBI Hate Crime Statistics Database:
- The crime must be reported and charged as a hate crime. We have seen that this motive is not always easy to demonstrate. Some areas/agencies in the country might be more likely to report a crime as a hate crime than other areas/agencies. We can suspect that a crime was motivated by hate, but unless there is evidence to charge on that basis, it seems it would not be included in this database. As such, it’s difficult to ascertain how many potential hate crimes are being missed.
- Data is provided by participating law enforcement agencies voluntarily and who provided data at least once during the year. A law enforcement agency that did not participate would not have their data included. If an agency only reported once but not for the rest of the year, it’s not clear if the rest of their hate crime reports during the year would have been submitted. So, again, there is no guarantee that the database gives us a complete picture.
- The categories to describe race are (i) White, (ii) Black, (iii) American Indian/Alaskan Native, (iv) Asian/Pacific Islander, and (v) Multiple Races, Group. We have seen that such categories can be problematic for South Asians, and it’s unclear (at least, to me) if the categorization is consistently applied across all participating law enforcement agencies.
It also seems that this database may under-report hate crimes in the United States. According to South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT):
These numbers may not even tell the whole story. Undocumented populations – including South Asians – are susceptible to such violence, but are loath to report incidents for fear of deportation and separation from their families. Underreporting is a major issue beyond undocumented populations, as well: fear of retaliation often keeps such reports from surfacing at all.
Another study – the US Bureau of Justice Hate Crime report – seems to reflect the assertion above. This study reports a substantially higher volume of hate crimes in this country than the FBI Hate Crime Statistics database (despite using the same legal definition of a hate crime):
An estimated 148,400 hate crimes were reported to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) in 2009, a decline from 239,400 in 2003, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today.
Also, according to the US Bureau of Justice study, (a large-scale national survey of victims of crime) over half of hate crimes are not reported:
About 45 percent of all hate crimes were reported to the police. When the crime was not reported, 32 percent of victims said that they chose to deal with the incident in another way, 19 percent stated that the crime was not important enough to report, 19 percent stated that the police could not or would not do anything to help, and 31 percent stated another reason not to report the incident.
This report also shows that 87% of hate crimes involve violence.
It is tempting to use FBI’s Hate Crimes Statistics as a basis to make claims about the pattern of hate crimes in this country – particularly because of the authority of the source and the geographic representation in the data, however, the statistics cannot be generalized to the overall population, nor can they be trended or compared. It’s probably best to make qualitative conclusions that are limited to just this database (and to be explicit about this in any reporting), rather than to make quantitative conclusions that could be incorrectly generalized as a national trend.