On the Underreporting of Hate Crimes

One common saying in the policy world—a saying I know as someone who can be a policy wonk, himself—is that “bad data leads to bad policies.”

Unfortunately, one area where we have bad data is with one of the major issues of our day: hate crimes.

In my blog post last Monday, where I talked about the recent shootings at three Atlanta-area spas, I made reference to the fact that hate crimes in general are underreported. While we have some data (some of which I cited in last week’s post), the data is not where it needs to be. This is the case because data on these crimes depends on the voluntary reporting of local police departments—something that can result in the severe undercounting of hate crimes. As a result, not all police agencies even report hate this data, and even among those departments who report such data, few departments report there being any hate crimes in 2018.[1]

Because of such incomplete data with regards to hate crimes in general, we’re left with a lot of unanswered questions about hate crimes in America. Here are some of the questions I, for one, have (and in bold, I explain how the answer to a question I raise could inform policy):

  • Are there any cities, regions, or states where the levels of hate crime overall are particularly high? Learning about the communities that struggle the most with these crimes may result in considerations of how to devote additional resources, or a different set of resources, to addressing the issues they experience with hate crimes.
  • Which ethnicities, religions, or other classifications are being targeted the most and/or are experiencing a rise in being victims of hate crimes, either in certain areas or nationally? Based on limited data from some major cities,[2] it appears anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise, but it would be nice to have more knowledge of whether this is an issue nationwide or whether it’s a problem concentrated in certain areas. Such data could potentially also help inform strategies on how to deal with the types of hate crimes that a specific area experiences the most.
  • Are there any cities, regions, or states where hate crime statistics seem to be defying certain trends nationally and/or in their own state? If there are any police departments where such crimes are bucking certain trends in their state or nationally for the better, then it would be worth seeing what those police departments are doing well in preventing and/or addressing hate crimes; this could then inform how other police departments address hate crimes. If any police departments are bucking certain trends in their state or nationally for the worse, then there needs to be an examination of what’s going wrong and how (if at all) the situation could be improved.
  • Are there any regional trends in hate crimes (for example, hate crimes against a particular ethnicity being on the rise in one region, or hate crimes targeting a particular religion being down in a particular region)? There are times when numbers may vary from region to region, or state to state, depending on a variety of factors. Additionally, knowing about regional trends can potentially allow for regional solutions in dealing with certain types of hate crimes, as opposed to a national one-size-fits-all approach.

Questions such as these, as well as others I may not be thinking of at this moment, need answers, yet we don’t have them because of such limited data on hate crimes. If municipalities, and the country as a whole, are serious about anti-Asian hate, and hate in general, we need to have better data on hate crimes, which in turn can potentially inform policy on how to address these crimes. I say that because as much as bad data can result in bad policies, good data can help inform good policies.

The good news is that, as of the time of my writing this post, there is soon to be legislation introduced in United States Congress to try and address this issue.[3] That legislation, called the NO HATE Act, would, among other things, try to provide incentives for the reporting of hate crimes. This is a bill that, according to its sponsor in the United States House of Representatives, is soon to be reintroduced. While I don’t know whether the incentives for the reporting of hate crimes by municipalities in this bill are enough to result in more detailed reporting, it is promising that organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Jewish Committee—organizations that are extremely aware of the threats that issues with these crimes cause to the people they advocate for—have supported this bill in the past.[4] Of course, if a hate crimes policy expert happens to stumble upon this blog post, I would be interested in hearing an expert’s take on the legislation.

Regardless of whether the aforementioned legislation is a policy solution, what is undeniable is that there is a problem with the underreporting of hate crimes. A good way to honor the victims of COVID-related hate crimes, and hate crimes in general, would be to try and find a solution on this issue.

[1] https://www.propublica.org/article/police-dont-do-a-good-job-tracking-hate-crimes-a-new-report-calls-on-congress-to-take-action

[2] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/anti-asian-hate-crimes-increased-nearly-150-2020-mostly-n-n1260264

[3] The NO HATE Act has not yet been reintroduced in this session of Congress, so I’m linking to the text of the legislation from the previous session of Congress here: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/2043/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22%5C%22no+hate+act%5C%22%22%5D%7D&r=1&s=2. I should also note that the author of the bill in the United States House of Representatives says that the bill is soon to be reintroduced: https://beyer.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=5080

[4] The NAACP had an “Action Alert” in September 2019 urging members of Congress to endorse and support the NO HATE Act: https://www.naacp.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/NO-HATE.pdf. The American Jewish Committee gave people the ability to email their members of Congress and urge them to consider supporting the legislation: https://actnow.ajc.org/LZloT1U