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The truth about hate crimes in America, by the numbers

What's the real truth?

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The news has been dominated in recent weeks with the story of actor Jussie Smollett, who appears to have orchestrated a fake hate crime upon himself in order to increase his public profile, and who inexplicably saw charges against him dropped after doing a few hours of community service and surrendering a $10,000 bond.

Smollett's story — which raised skepticism immediately — has drawn attention to the issue of fake or hoax hate crimes in America. Indeed, there have been multiple hate crime hoaxes that have made the news in the last few years. Some have used the Smollett case (along with the others we have highlighted) to suggest or imply that all or almost all reported hate crimes are hoaxes, or that the problem of hoax hate crimes is worse than the problem of real hate crimes.

In fact, the liberal who attacked a Turning Point USA activist at Berkeley on Feb. 19 appears to have been mostly angered by a recruitment sign that read, "Hate Crime Hoaxes Hurt Real Victims." Meanwhile, liberals have claimed that hate crimes are getting worse.

In fact, following the Smollett story, the news was dominated by several days by the story of the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand, which appears to have been a real hate crime with deadly consequences. The Christchurch story was only superseded in the news again with the bizarre dismissal of charges against Jussie Smollett.

I spoke via email with someone from the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division to try to get a handle on the problem. Is it real? Fake? Getting worse or getting better?

Here's what the numbers say.

First, does it matter?

Before delving into the question, it is worth asking whether it even matters. There is certainly an argument that hate crimes should be treated no differently than any other crime.

The argument goes something like this: A person who is murdered as the result of a hate crime is no more or less dead than someone who is murdered for money, or jealousy, or any of the other reasons that lead people to kill one another. Punishing hate crimes more stringently than "ordinary" crimes of the same type just turns us into the thought police, which isn't a business we should be in.

On the other hand, we regularly involve ourselves in "punishing thought" in ways that haven't been troublesome for years. There's a whole different category of homicides that are done "on accident" (manslaughter) versus "on purpose" (murder), and even though the victim is just as dead in both cases, we have long considered murder to be worthy of more severe punishment than manslaughter, even though the only difference is what was in the mind of the killer. Intention, after all, is just a specific subspecies of thought.

Even within the category of murder, we differentiate between people who have been thinking about committing the murder ahead of time, which we call first degree murder, versus people who commit murder in the "heat of the moment," which we call second degree murder. Again, the only difference between the two crimes (which are punished differently) are the thoughts in the perpetrator's head.

Further, there are persuasive reasons that we all accept in other contexts to treat crimes differently based on the intent of the person who committed it.

Consider a hypothetical scenario in which a man carelessly leaves volatile chemicals in his garage on a scorching hot day. While his family is away, the chemicals explode, causing significant damage to his house, and causing his neighbor's house to catch on fire. No one is hurt, but there's significant property damage. Probably, our hypothetical careless man gets charged with reckless endangerment and pleads to a no-prison-time offense.

Now consider a man who either joins or is inspired by ISIS. He builds an improvised explosive device and places it in a local synagogue, intending to kill a bunch of attendees. Due to a faulty timing device, the bomb explodes early, and the synagogue is completely empty. No one is harmed, but there is some property damage. The effect of this explosion is exactly the same as the effect of the explosion in the careless man's garage.

However, if our hypothetical would-be ISIS terrorist is caught, he will face a lengthy prison term that he will be unable to plead himself out of.

We ought to ask ourselves: Why?

In both cases, the end result is exactly the same, but we nearly universally consider ISIS guy to be worthy of far greater punishment and condemnation than garage guy.

Obviously, intention is by far the most important thought that we consider when deciding whether to punish criminals. The first and foremost question is, "Did this person commit this crime on purpose?" But we delve further, into questions of motive all the time. A person who shoots a random stranger on purpose in a mugging is punished differently (and less) than a person who shoots another person as part of a terrorist attack. We expend more resources attempting to thwart the latter than the former.

Moreover, there are all sorts of things that are crimes if committed "with intent to defraud" but are much lesser crimes (or not crimes at all) if the intent to defraud is not present. The criminal's motive often matters for the purposes of determining how much they should be punished — or if they should be punished at all.

The reason is that we intuitively understand that actions that are taken with the intention of intimidating or causing fear are more injurious to society as a whole and deserve a sterner response from our law enforcement officials. Further, we consider it worth our time to spend extra money and effort to prevent them from happening, as the existence of countless anti-terrorism task forces in various law enforcement and national security agencies can attest.

Frequently, then, we impose harsher penalties on criminals based on what is in their mind when they commit the crime, and/or based on the intended effect of the crime — especially when the intended effect is to intimidate or terrorize either one specific subgroup within a society or society at large. Unless we are willing to concede that domestic terrorism — including of the Islamist variety — should be treated like any other crime, we should accept that hate crime should also be treated differently.

Certain crimes — like terrorism and hate crimes — deserve to be treated differently because they are more injurious to the fabric of society. They are intended to cause fear and disruption — and do cause disruption — in ways that "ordinary" acts of violence do not.

The question remains, however: Are hate crimes a real problem? And is the problem getting worse or better?

Here's what the FBI said.

The raw numbers

How many hate crimes are committed?

As part of their Uniform Crime Reporting program, the FBI compiles a list of hate crimes (or "bias-motivated" crime incidents) each year. The most recent report was released in November 2018 and covers the calendar year 2017.

The report showed that during 2017, there were 7,175 "criminal incidents" that were motivated by bias against the victim's "race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, [or] gender identity." Within those 7,175 incidents, 8,437 criminal offenses were committed. There were 8,828 victims, all told.

By far the most common type of bias that led people to commit crimes (or target a certain victim) was race/ancestry/ethnicity bias, which accounted for 59.6 percent of these crimes. The next most common bias was bias against the victim's religion, which accounted for 20.6 percent of these crimes, followed by sexual-orientation bias, accounting for 15.8 percent. The remaining biases accounted for small portions (less than 2 percent each) of the remaining crimes, including 1.9 percent for disability bias; 1.6 percent for gender identity bias; and 0.6 percent for gender bias.

The most common kind of bias-related crime was crime against the person, including 5,084 offenses. The FBI classified 44.9 percent of these offenses as "intimidation," 34.3 percent of them as "simple assault," and 19.5 percent as "aggravated assault" (generally, an aggravated assault involves an attempt to cause serious injury to another person with a deadly weapon).

In addition to these, there were 23 rapes and 15 murders that were reported as hate crimes. I asked the FBI for an accounting of the 15 reported murders, and those stories will constitute a separate article, because their stories are important.

The remaining 27 offenses were categorized as "other."

The next most common kind of bias-related crime was crime against property, accounting for 3,115 offenses. By far the most common of these was vandalism, accounting for 74.6 percent of this group. The remaining 25.4 percent of these offenses were for more serious crimes against property, including robbery, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.

There were also an additional 238 "crimes against society" incidents that were reported to the FBI as having been motivated by bias. These included crimes for gambling, prostitution, and drug violations. It was not immediately clear how any of these crimes could have been motivated by bias since they are, according to the FBI's own definitions, "victimless crimes in which property is not the object."

Who commits hate crimes?

For a certain portion of bias-motivated crimes, police were not able to identify any information whatsoever about the offender. These were the kinds of crimes where a crime was reported, but no offender was ever caught or found, and no information about the offender was ever made available to the police.

Of the offenders for whom race was reported, 50.7 percent of those offenders were white, while 21.3 percent were black. Of the offenders for whom ethnicity was reported, 8.8 percent were identified as Hispanic/Latino. No other single race or ethnicity was responsible for more than 1 percent of crimes.

The vast majority (83 percent) of offenders whose age was known were over the age of 18.

Interestingly, the FBI also noted the location of these hate crimes. According to the report, "most hate crime incidents (27.5 percent) occurred in or near residences/homes. Seventeen (17.0) percent occurred on highways/roads/alleys/streets/sidewalks; 10.5 percent occurred at schools/colleges; 5.8 percent happened at parking/drop lots/garages; and 4.1 percent took place in churches/synagogues/temples/mosques. The location was reported as other/unknown for 11.5 percent of hate crime incidents. The remaining 23.7 percent of hate crime incidents took place at other or multiple locations."

I asked the FBI whether any specific kind of hate crime has seen a recent drastic increase, as has been reported in the media. In response, the FBI identified for TheBlaze three recent spikes in specific kinds of hate crimes. In 2001, there was a massive increase in anti-Other Ethnicity National Origin (324 percent) and anti-Islamic (1,618 percent) hate crimes following the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2015, there was a large spike (67 percent increase) in anti-Islamic hate crimes, and in 2017, there was a large increase (37 percent) in anti-Jewish hate crimes. The proportions of the race/ethnicity of offenders has remained relatively constant.

How does the FBI ensure that these numbers are correct?

I asked the FBI what bar had to be cleared for a crime to be included in their report. How do they determine whether a given crime was motivated by bias? The FBI told TheBlaze that law enforcement agencies are instructed to include a crime in their report if "the investigation reveals sufficient objective facts that conclude the offender's actions were motivated, in whole or in part, by bias."

This determination is made solely by law enforcement agencies and not by prosecutors. The FBI told TheBlaze, "The findings of a coroner, court, or prosecutor have no impact on whether these incidents are reported to the FBI UCR Program." In other words, if the police conclude that a given crime is motivated by bias, then it gets included in the report, regardless of the ultimate disposition of the case.

I asked the FBI what guidance they give reporting agencies on how to determine whether something is a crime that has been motivated by bias. They stated that law enforcement agencies are instructed to follow the Hate Crime Data Collection Guidelines and Training Manual. Section 2.2 of the manual includes a number of objective factors that law enforcement agencies should consider in determining whether a given offense was motivated by bias, including "bias-related oral comments" made by the offender during the crime, bias-related drawings or markings left at the crime scene, and so on.

Section 2.3 of the manual also includes some guidance for law enforcement agencies on how to be cautious and avoid reporting hoax or fake hate crimes — or to avoid reporting an ordinary crime as a hate crime. For instance, the manual instructs police to be cautious about potentially misleading facts (such as, "the offender used an epithet to refer to the victim's race, but the offender and victim were of the same race,") feigned facts (which is when "evidence is left by offenders which is meant to give a false impression that the incident was motivated by bias. For example, students of a religious school vandalize their own school, leaving anti-religious statements and symbols on its walls hoping that they will be excused from class,") and so on.

I asked the FBI what they did to ensure the accuracy of these numbers, and to follow up and make sure that the counts are accurate. The FBI told TheBlaze that, " Participating agencies are periodically contacted throughout the year to verify data," and also that "all state UCR programs and direct contributing agencies are provided with a list of incident reports prior to publication each year for final verification purposes."

If there are so many real hate crimes, why do the hoaxes get so much attention?

I asked the FBI if they had any insight as to why so many of the hate crimes that get reported in the media turn out to be hoaxes, given the vast undercurrent of apparently real hate crimes that are committed every year. Unfortunately, since the FBI does not collect data on hate crime hoaxes, they were not able or willing to offer specific insight into this phenomenon.

The answers are nonetheless easy to surmise. If a person is the victim of a real hate crime, they will go to the police. They may or may not follow that up with a phone call to local news outlets. However, if a person wishes to stage or hoax a hate crime, they probably want less police attention (given what happened with Jussie Smollett) and more likely to crave media attention. In fact, the whole point of a hate hoax crime is to get media attention, so a person who engages in one can and will almost certainly get it, while the victims of real hate crimes often just make a report to the police and try to begin the process of quietly putting their lives back together.

This creates the unfortunate impression that all or most hate crimes are hoaxes, since a disproportionate number of the ones that receive media sensationalism turn out to be fake or exaggerated. As evidence of that, Jussie Smollett's apparent hoax has garnered more media attention than the 15 very real hate crime murders that were committed in 2017 combined, and it isn't even close.

The bottom line: It's appropriate to be skeptical of sensational hate crime stories that get a ton of media play. But don't make the mistake of assuming that there aren't many, many more real hate crimes that happen that don't get any media attention at all.

One last thing…
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