Multiple jurisdictions not reporting hate crimes to the FBI

A rash of racist graffiti appeared in the Center Point area in July 2016. Many potential hate...
A rash of racist graffiti appeared in the Center Point area in July 2016. Many potential hate crimes in central Alabama are not accounted for in the FBI’s data collection. (Source: WBRC video)
Updated: Mar. 27, 2019 at 2:38 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Racist graffiti appeared on street signs, buildings, and Center Point High School in July 2016.

One year later, a Muslim family in Helena discovered their three vehicles with shattered windows, punctured tires, and depictions of obscene images.

Three months later, in October 2017, hateful words were spray painted on a concession stand outside of the Bobby Miller Activity Center and quickly covered up by the Tuscaloosa Park and Recreation Authority.

None of these suspected hate crimes were not counted in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s year end tallies by jurisdiction, despite the 2009 Hate Crime Statistics Act mandating data collection.

The absence of these crimes in national counts leads to misleading information and talking points that hate crimes have increased or decreased in any given year. In fact, it could just be circumstances and coincidences that crimes get reported to the database at all.

Birmingham Police Department is an example of outside factors influencing local jurisdictions’ ability and commitment to reporting their data.

In early 2017, numerous bomb threats called into the Levite Jewish Community Center in Birmingham. In response, BPD increased patrols around the center. Around the same time, the Islamic Center in Hoover was also threatened. Hoover’s suspected hate crime numbers made it into the FBI’s count; Birmingham’s did not.

When asked how that data reporting may have slipped through the cracks, BPD pointed to tremendous turnover in its command staff during the first few months of 2018 (when statistics are typically compiled and submitted for the prior year). That turnover also included the retirement of Chief A.C. Roper and the search for his replacement Chief Patrick Smith who took office in June. Whether or not there will be amended numbers submitted to the FBI database is hard to say.

“Due to a number of circumstances, that information is not available right now,” BPD Public Information Officer Sgt. Johnny Williams said. Birmingham Police did report their suspected hate crime reports in years prior to 2017.

In fairness, BPD and other local agencies are under no mandate from the state of Alabama to report hate crime statistics. There is no statute forcing the collection of hate crime counts as there are for other crimes in the state such as homicide. There is nothing illegal about not participating in the FBI data program.

What constitutes a hate crime in Alabama is also sometimes unclear. Numerous proposals have been submitted to the legislature expanding the definition to include threats against religious institutions and potentially, threats against law enforcement.

Additionally, sometimes suspected crimes get turned over from a local agency to a local FBI Field Office. An InvestigateTV national report discovered many crimes handled by the FBI don’t even make it into the counts.

The problem with inaccurate counts is that law enforcement leaders may not have a clear picture of the environment in their jurisdiction. This can make preventing a crisis difficult.

“If I were a chief or a sheriff or special agent in charge at the FBI, that’s what would worry me… [that] I don’t know. I don’t know what’s happening in my jurisdiction or my territory,” Cynthia Deitle, a former FBI agent and hate crime expert, told InvestigateTV. “I don’t know if I have a problem that’s going to manifest itself in a Dylann Roof in Charleston. I don’t know because no one’s given me data I can rely upon.”

Jurisdictions such as Birmingham Police have also made a wealth of data on other public safety issues available on city websites with Open Data portals.

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