By Dr. Jessica Hodge, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology
As someone who studies hate crimes and teaches a class about the subject, I find myself anticipating every year the release of the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics report. In this report, the FBI provides a variety of statistics involving the types of hate crime incidences that occurred during the previous year, and the number of hate crime offenders and victims that were involved in these offenses. The statistics included within this report are the numbers submitted to the FBI from police agencies across the country. While these numbers do provide a national picture of the number and types of hate crime offenses that took place during the previous year, the FBI’s report is far from accurate. For example, not all police agencies across the country regularly report statistics to the FBI, and even with the agencies that do report statistics to the FBI, not all of these will include their hate crime statistics. Another problem with the FBI’s numbers is that most crimes go unreported to law enforcement and thus are not included within the final total. This occurs for a variety of reasons, but in the context of hate crimes, victims are often reluctant to report incidences for fear of retaliation or further victimization by the offender(s) or by police officers. This is substantiated by the fact that advocacy groups, such as the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, describe significantly higher numbers within their own reports since victims of hate crimes often feel more secure going to these organizations for assistance.Even though I am aware of the flaws with the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics report, I still look forward to seeing the report every year as this is the closest thing we have to official national statistics. As someone who studies the subject, I am always interested to see how the numbers have changed in comparison to previous years’ reports. For example, I can see what types of bias crimes are most common across the country, and whether the type of crime (e.g., property crime vs. violent crime) differs depending upon the type of bias motivation (i.e., whether the crimes were motivated by the victims’ race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.). However, this year, I am particularly anxious to see the report, so much so, that I have been checking the FBI’s website almost daily. Why do you ask? Well, good question!
Two years ago, on October 29, 2009, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shephard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA). This law had gone through many revisions and encountered much resistance, but after ten years, the law was finally passed by Congress and signed by the President. This law, now two years old, provided several changes to the federal hate crime laws that existed at the time; yet, in my opinion, one of the most significant revisions was including the category of gender within this law. This was significant because prior to the passage of the HCPA, if a victim was targeted because of her gender, this would not be counted within the FBI’s report because the gender category was not included within the FBI’s definition of a hate crime. As someone who has studied the subject of gender-motivated hate crimes for almost ten years and recently published a book on the topic, this is a BIG deal. Now that the gender category is included within the FBI’s definition, this means that the category is now on the radar of local police departments. This a huge step toward finally recognizing the impact of gender-motivated violence and for acknowledging how these crimes are just as harmful as other types of bias crimes. While it may take time for police to fully understand how gender-motivated crimes are similar to other types of bias motivated crimes, this is at least a step in the right direction. The collection of statistics does not eliminate the problem, but statistics do inform policy and practice. And for this reason, I wait for the FBI to release this year’s report and wish a “happy anniversary” to the Mathew Shephard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.