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Justice Department report says police aren’t fully reporting hate crimes to the federal government: “An incomplete picture”

Police departments in New York and Los Angeles – the nation’s two largest agencies – top the list of the approximately 7,000 police forces that don’t report hate crimes to the federal government, according to a Department of Justice report released Wednesday.

The lack of reporting has given an “incomplete picture” of hate crimes in the country, the U.S. associate attorney general said this week.

In Dec. 2022, the FBI released a report showing there were 7,262 hate crime incidents and 9,024 victims in 2021. Much of the violence has targeted the Black community – almost 60% of the reported bias crimes – while other reports include crimes against people based on their sexual orientation, gender and religion.  But many police forces are not reporting hate crimes to the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).

“The problem is especially acute for hate crimes because many agencies that are NIBRS-compliant are not submitting hate crime data. As a result, the 2021 Hate Crime Statistics released late last year provided an incomplete picture of hate crime trends in this country,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta in remarks at the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Wednesday. 

In May 2021, President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act and Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act into law. He directed the Justice Department to increase resources and coordination to combat hate crimes and incidents, according to a DOJ memo. 

But experts say the data is insufficient and there needs to be a more accurate tally of hate crimes in the U.S.

“We don’t know how many potential victims there are,” said Ernesto Lopez, a research specialist who studies crime trends at the Council on Criminal Justice, a think-tank based in Washington D.C. Lopez said accurate and consistent information is incredibly important to ensure good policing.

Huge chunks of police data have been missing since the FBI switched its crime reporting software to the NIBRS database on Jan. 1, 2021. This software uses an incident-based report instead of a summary, allowing police to fully record details around violent crimes, including hate crimes. This method allows police to ask more detailed questions and provide more accurate information to the federal government, which in turn can allocate more resources, training, and funding to regions struggling with hate crimes. 

But the number of police agencies reporting hate crimes dropped from 15,138  to 11,834 in 2021, data shows. Even the reported incidents can sometimes be misleading, experts say. 

“Folks want to know quickly if this is a hate crime– but it’s not always that clear cut,” said Joshua Skule, president of the consultant firm Bow Wave LLC,  and former FBI Executive Assistant Director for Intelligence.

A hate crime is defined as a crime motivated by prejudice on the basis of someone’s race, religion, gender or identity, Skule said, but a victim could sometimes just be a target of opportunity.  The challenge for law enforcement, he said, is to determine the underlying motivation of the crime and then report that accurately. Managing the data correctly allows law enforcement and legislators to divert resources to communities that need the most assistance.

“Law enforcement leaders are trying to get a handle on reporting,” Skule said. “Then they can help the communities that are being targeted, but aggregating that data has been elusive.”

Federal authorities have struggled with getting local police agencies to start inputting their information into the national database. Some police departments not sharing information have cited lack of funding, training and fear that there will be a public perception that crime has significantly increased with the switch, the report said.  Approximately $120 million was awarded to local law enforcement agencies and state UCR programs to implement the new program, according to the report. Among the 40 largest agencies funded, 28 successfully transitioned to the new software, including Chicago, Dallas, Boston, Seattle, and Detroit, the report said.  

Even though federal authorities have invested millions of dollars in support, training, and technical assistance to agencies, the LAPD said it would take about two more years to switch over to the new system, the report said. 

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