Last week, to much jubilation among civil rights groups, an advisory committee to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recommended that the FBI begin specifically recording hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus, and Arabs (starting in 2015, as I understand), as it does for other targeted groups. It was for good reason that this announcement would be so celebrated considering the significant and lengthy effort to bring this incremental change. However, it is important to place this addition to the FBI’s data gathering and reporting of hate crimes in context, especially because this database suffers several shortcomings that will still hamper a quantification of anti-Sikh hate crimes that accurately reflects reality, even after implementing the new category (for the purpose of this blog, crimes against Sikhs will be the focus in this discussion).
Every year, the FBI reports on hate crimes from its database (the 2010 and 2011 reports have been discussed previously on this blog) in a report called Hate Crime Statistics. The data for the statistics is sourced from voluntary submissions by law enforcement agencies across the country to the FBI using a standard form called I-699 Hate Crime Incident Report. On this form, a law enforcement official describes the nature of a specific bias crime, including its confirmed motive, its location, and basic information about the perpetrator and type of victim.
To date, despite the fact that the FBI was already collecting data about bias motivation of crimes against specific ethnic, religious and other targeted groups, hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus, and Arabs were not identified in the FBI’s statistics, and therefore there was no means to report out of this data the magnitude or nature of crimes that targeted Sikh victims. Without such data collection, advocates operated in a statistics vacuum to address anti-Sikh hate crimes — answers to the who, where, and how often questions were absent. Instead, these crimes against Sikhs would have been assigned to an anti-Muslim category, or perhaps to the catch-all grouping. For those who sought to use the FBI’s hate crime statistics for analysis, where Sikhs were concerned, the database was consequently not useful. The addition of a new anti-Sikh hate crime category means that now if a law enforcement official submits this form about a hate crime targeting a Sikh in a given jurisdiction, the this data can be used to identify and report about these crimes. Obviously, such quantification is crucial to addressing hate crimes targeting Sikhs from an advocacy perspective (see representatives of the Sikh Coalition discuss the importance FBI’s decision on The Huffington Post and on Fox News):
“We can’t go to policy makers or law enforcement to make the case about crimes against our communities unless we have the official data,” said Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy for the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights group that has pushed law enforcement for two years to take action.
As the post-9/11 surge in hate crimes perpetrated against Sikh Americans would not abate, another reason why the addition of this category is so significant was of the considerable effort required to convince the FBI to finally make this incremental change to their already existing data collection process. The request to have the FBI track hate crimes against Sikhs began (by several accounts) when the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) advocated for this reporting in 2010. This issue was also a key agenda item for the Sikh Coalition, who led efforts to lobby extensively for an anti-Sikh hate crime category in the FBI’s annual data gathering and reporting. Two years of continued advocacy for this change involved (presumably among other activities) solicitation of public support, meetings with elected officials and bureaucrats, and letters sent to the FBI by House Representatives and the Senate during each of two sessions of Congress. A third letter was also signed by members of the recently-assembled American Sikh Congressional Caucus as well.
And, it would be no overstatement to suggest that the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, mass shooting of six Sikhs in a Gurdwara last August by a white supremacist also opened the eyes of many to the issue of hate crimes targeting Sikhs — indeed, in the wake of the mass murder, a congressional hearing was held to examine law enforcement’s activities to address domestic extremists groups and the call for anti-Sikh hate crime tracking was renewed directly to the FBI by US Senator Dick Durbin. It was exactly ten months after the massacre that the FBI’s advisory committee recommended the addition of the anti-Sikh category, during which time other hate crimes against Sikhs were seen in Seattle, Washington, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Port Orange, Florida, and Fresno, California. Other incidents, notably the drive-by murder of two elderly Sikh men in Sacramento, California, the beating of a Sikh taxi driver in West Sacramento, California, the beating of a Sikh subway employee in New York, death threats towards a family in Sterling, Virginia, vandalism of a Gurdwara in Sterling Heights, Michigan, and the stabbing of another Sikh man in Fresno, pre-dated the Oak Creek massacre. With such a plague of bias-motivated attacks on Sikh Americans, the need for statistics for advocacy efforts is dire.
Another benefit of the addition of the anti-Sikh hate crime category is the awareness of Sikhs that is catalyzed when a law enforcement agency must fill out a hate crime incident report. There exists considerable ignorance and misconception among members of law enforcement across the United States about who Sikhs are, and what we believe, and it is often the case that such lack of knowledge acts as an obstacle when law enforcement agents engage members of the Sikh community. However, the explicit identification of Sikhs on the Hate Crimes Incident Report facilitates education about Sikh Americans for law officers. In a recent report by Voice of America News, Michael Lieberman of the Anti-Defamation League described this additional benefit of the Sikh, Hindu and Arab categories:
“To even raise the possibility of having Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs will mean that a law enforcement official that is filling out this form will have to be trained” in awareness of what it means to belong to one of these groups, and what makes them stand out.
Notwithstanding the significant benefits of the addition of the anti-Sikh hate crime category, the FBI hate crimes database suffers from other deficiencies that will continue to act as an impediment to relaying the full picture of hate crimes that target Sikhs (and others), even to other law enforcement authorities who attempt use the data. These issues have been discussed on this blog several times (here, here, and here), and include:
- A crime must pass a threshold of “reasonableness” in order to be deemed a hate crime, and yet, this remains nebulous. If there is no clear motive or if the bias motivation was not the primary motive, the crime may not be categorized as a hate crime and thus not be counted among hate crime statistics. In several of the hate crimes targeting Sikhs listed above, it is unclear whether they would have even been included, and it is often difficult to prove (even the mass shooter in Oak Creek did not leave any indication as to his specific motive).
- Submission of hate crime reports to the FBI’s hate crime database is voluntary, and thus if a law enforcement agency elects not to submit a hate crime report, that crime would not appear in the FBI’s statistics.
Not surprisingly, another survey by the United States Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics demonstrates that the number of hate crimes reported by the FBI’s database is vastly underestimated:
In contrast to the 250,000 crimes reported by the Department of Justice, the FBI’s statistics report less than 7,000 per year. There is a clear data deficiency in the FBI’s reporting.
The DoJ’s annual National Victimization Survey — a survey of victims of crime across the country — also indicates that half of these quarter of a million hate crimes in the country every year go unreported. There is a discrepancy in what the FBI reports in its database and the true magnitude of the hate crimes plague.
Given these significant limitations of the database, it is not surprising that the FBI itself cautions users on making generalized conclusions based on its hate crimes data about the nature of hate crimes in the country. Any conclusions made about the nature or volume of hate crimes is limited to the hate crimes data set and is not necessarily reflective of such activity in the country.
In December of last year, we discussed recommendations about the hate crimes database:
Knowing the number [of anti-Sikh hate crimes] itself is not enough, we must also erect systems and structures to use those numbers.
These recommendations still stand, particularly in relation to making the data actionable, and ensuring that systems are in place to prevent future attacks from occurring. As we have seen, the white supremacy movement is not a focus for the country’s national law enforcement agencies. Perhaps, improving the accuracy of the data we use to advocate for greater efforts towards prevention and intervention will prove fruitful in bringing the focus back to groups that seek to do harm to America’s ethnic communities.
It must also be said that while the hate crimes statistics allows us to address hate crimes from a legal perspective, we must determine how to address the hate behind the crime. What compels an individual or group to assault innocent people is a crucial aspect that must be identified and addressed. This heart of the problem is, unfortunately, the most difficult to tackle.
The addition of the anti-Sikh hate crimes category certainly addresses a major limitation about the FBI’s database and is no doubt a significant development, particularly in relation to the mountains that needed to be moved in order to make the incremental addition. However, it is clear that in order to have accurate and actionable data, we must continue to call for improvements to the FBI hate crimes database and the data collection process behind them. As was often said in the campaign to add the anti-Sikh category, we cannot address the problem unless we have accurate data to do so. Let us ensure we have the best tools at our disposal.