Since the election, coverage surrounding hateful acts against Muslims, gays, Latinos and other cohorts have seen a sharp spike. An Anti-Defamation League study released this week found that Anti-Semitic incidents like swastika graffiti and schoolyard bullying have jumped by 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017.
But still, comprehensive data on hate crimes is elusive. A.C. Thompson is a reporter working on ProPublica’s “Documenting Hate” project, an effort in collaboration with WNYC and other news organizations to keep tabs on intolerance. He and Bob discuss why police departments mislead federal data collectors on hate crimes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. In the Trump era, the economy is still a bit sluggish but there certainly is a bull market for hatred.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: At a middle school in Michigan, a cafeteria chant of “Build the wall.”
STUDENTS CHANTING: Build the wall, build the wall!
At a Minnesota high school, graffiti, “Go back to Africa, Whites Only, Trump” and in North Carolina, similar words, “Black lives don’t matter.”
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The election of Donald Trump really has kind of released the Kraken of hate in America.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: New York Mayor de Blasio saying, quote, “The horrible hateful rhetoric that was used in this election by candidate Trump and by a lot of his supporters directly connects to an increase since the election in anti-Semitic incidents, anti-Muslim incidents and anti-LGBT incidents.”
BOB GARFIELD: Muslims, gays, Latinos and other cohorts have seen a sharp spike in hate incidents. And then there's the Jews. An Anti-Defamation League study released this week found that anti-Semitic incidents like swastika, graffiti and schoolyard bullying have jumped by 86% in the first quarter of 2017. But still, comprehensive data on hate crimes is elusive.
A.C. Thompson is a reporter working on ProPublica’s “Documenting Hate” project, an effort in collaboration with WNYC and other news organizations, to keep tabs on intolerance. Welcome to OTM.
A.C. THOMPSON: Thanks for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD: The FBI is our government's main source of data on crime, including hate crime, but it's well known that on hate crimes the FBI numbers are woefully incomplete. Why?
A.C. THOMPSON: So, this all goes back to 1990 and, at that point, Congress passed a law that instructs the US attorney general to go out and get that information. Since then, the attorney generals have directed the FBI, hey, go talk to local state police and sheriff’s departments, get the data for us. And the problem is been that 20% of the police departments in the country do not give any data to the FBI. Somewhere around 80% of the departments that actually participate in the program claim they never have hate crimes in their jurisdiction.
BOB GARFIELD: In Mississippi in 2015, police reported to the FBI that there were zero hate crimes [LAUGHS] which, let’s just say, didn’t correspond with the news coverage or the court docket. Why would police not report this stuff?
A.C. THOMPSON: Who wants to have the headline that says, your city or your town or your county is number one for hate crimes in the state or in the country or in the region? That's not a good look, you don't want that. If you just kind of don't do the best job of documenting this stuff and submitting it to the federal government, well, you end up looking better. And, actually, you see a similar phenomenon in documenting police shootings. Departments just don't submit the reports.
The other thing is that the federal government is asking for information as it defines a hate crime. State law may vary quite significantly from what the federal government considers a hate crime. So now you're asking police departments to collect information that may not even be covered in their state penal code.
BOB GARFIELD: Five states have no hate crime law whatsoever.
A.C. THOMPSON: Exactly. What I hear from police chiefs and superintendents is they say, we want to go out and solve crimes, we want to respond to emergencies. This is another unfunded mandate and this is just more paperwork for us.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there any effort on the federal level to make their jobs easier by, for example, funding the reporting mandate that we’re discussing?
A.C. THOMPSON: There's legislation currently pending in the Senate that would basically give grant money to police agencies that wanted to upgrade their data collection systems across the board. And the idea is like, hey, this is going to make it easier for you to get information that's important on all crimes and when you get that grant, we’d eventually like you to start submitting the data that you have on hate crimes, as well. But so far, there hasn't been a lot of energy on this issue from the Republican Congress.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so the FBI uniform crime reporting is not furnishing the data that groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Justice Department and scholars really need, so how to fill in the gap?
A.C. THOMPSON: We asked people in our network of many, many news organizations to solicit reports from their viewers, their listeners, their readers. We also worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center and other civil rights groups to tap into the data they were collecting. We put it all into a huge database that we share. We talk to the people who claim they’ve been victimized. We ask for photos, we ask for evidence. It's not comprehensive but it's one more piece of signal in a world of noise.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, this sounds great, although it strikes me that if you're successful what you will have is a vast trove of anecdotal information, difficult for agencies and scholars and civil rights groups to act upon because it's harder to see the larger trends.
A.C. THOMPSON: The thing is the data set from the FBI just says, here is a crime, the victim, the perpetrator, and this is what we think it was about. It was because the victim was African-American or because the victim was Jewish. With our information, we are actually getting a much more granular narrative understanding of the crimes.
One of our partners, Huffington Post, did a story in the wake of the double shooting in Kansas of the computer engineers, titled, “97 Ways of Saying the Same Hateful Thing.” And they had gone into our dataset and found story after story of persons being threatened by folks who say, hey, get out of my country, you’re an immigrant, you’re a Latino. And to me, that was a really insightful thing to learn that what's happening in Kansas, that is not an isolated incident; this is a phenomenon and this is something worth tracking.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s a counter narrative, this from right-wing media, when some hate crimes are found to be hoaxes or something other than the real deal.
GREG GUTFELD/FOX NEWS: At least one business is doing great these days: the hate crime hoax factory.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The truth, we are now learning, behind what Michelle Malkin is calling “the biggest hate crime hoax of the year.”
BOB GARFIELD: How does that make your job harder?
A.C. THOMPSON: When you get these occasional hoaxes, the notion that we hear from these folks is, hey, look, all these hate crimes are fake, it's all bogus, it's all just people trying to make President Trump look bad, the problem is, is that when we go into the stories that we collect, we just over and over are finding, as reporters, evidence that seems to tie this political moment to these crimes. When somebody spray paints a bunch of racist epithets, a bunch of anti-Semitic epithets, and the word “Trump” at a school, the only thing I can infer from that is that the person is down for Trump and they're not really into Jews or people of color.
BOB GARFIELD: What's your take on how alarmed exactly we should be?
A.C. THOMPSON: Again, because the data is flawed, we don't know how significant the increase is. The early reports on the most recent data looks like we may be looking at a fairly significant uptick, like 24% in 2016 in New York, 50% in Philadelphia, 20% in Chicago in the same time period. But, again, these are relatively small numbers, and part of what's propelling the increase in reports is the notion that there's attention on this subject. People have been encouraged by civil rights groups, by the media, people like me, to report them, people who might otherwise have not made these reports. So it's not totally clear how big of an increase we’re seeing.
All that said, I don't think you should feel that the sky is falling and that we’re looking at widespread bloodshed in the streets anytime soon. But I think that we all need to be very, very vigilant that that doesn't happen.
BOB GARFIELD: A.C., thank you very much.
A.C. THOMPSON: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: A.C. Thompson is a reporter working on the “Documenting Hate Project,” ProPublica’s national crimes database.