Hate crimes continue to rise in DC, others possibly going unreported

Photo Credit: Travis Wise

This year could be the worst on record for hate crimes in D.C., but some argue police are nowhere close to addressing the real scope of the problem.

Last year already had the highest numbers in nearly a decade, but according to reports from D.C.’s Metropolitan Police, 2017 could be even worse.

Sexual orientation has been the most common reason for hate crimes in D.C. since 2011. Graphic by Samuel Northrop

The district defines a hate crime as a criminal or attempted criminal act that shows the accused’s prejudice toward one or many different groups. A hate crime does not exist on its own and is instead understood to be a motive for a crime that carries an extra penalty in sentencing.

Although these incidences have increased recently, nationwide numbers are still low compared to international peers, and some argue that is because of severe under-reporting to police.

Smaller countries report more crimes

For instance, The Southern Poverty Law Center published a release showing the disparity between hate crimes reported in the U.S. versus England and Wales. Even if you remove the offenses that do not directly translate to U.S. incidences (such as public order offenses like causing fear or distress) there are still nearly three times as many incidences reported in England and Wales despite having a much smaller population.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates the actual rates of hate crimes nationwide are much higher, but victims choose not to report the majority of cases. Around 54 percent of all hate crime victimizations went unreported to police between 2011 and 2015 according to the National Crime Victimization Survey done by the bureau.

Lynn Langton, Ph.D. is the chief of Victimization Statistics Unit at the bureau, and her department oversaw the survey.

“[The] NCVS was designed to catch the dark figure or hidden figure of crime,” Langton said.

The survey collects data on hate crime rates sometimes long after the incident occurred though, and is based on the perception of the victim. It asks if the victim has evidence, but does not require it to the extent the victim would if he or she wanted to see a hate crime charged in court, Langton said.

Going to police is not always the preferred option

Of the unreported incidents, only about 20 percent of the victims surveyed said they did not think the incident was important enough to report to police. That means four out of every five were thought to be important enough but went unreported anyway.

Langton said her department doesn’t get the qualitative answers they would like on the survey. Finding out more about why people decide to handle it on their own instead of going to police could lead to more accurate reporting of events.

The survey shows that in nearly half of all incidents the victims perceived their race as the reason they were being attacked. This perception is based on questions about the offender using hate speech or leaving racist symbols at the scene. All incidents, including those not reported to the police, were used in this percentage.

Despite falling around 20 percent since 2004, racial bias still motivates nearly half of all hate crimes. *Values do not add up to one hundred because more than one bias could be reported. Graphic by Samuel Northrop

Race is the most common bias cited nationwide, but in the District, sexual orientation has been the leading reason since 2011. Lt. Brett Parson, the commander of D.C. Police’s Special Liaison Unit, said that part of his department’s job is to make communities feel more comfortable reporting crimes to the police.

“We want to increase the comfort level and open up those lines of communication,” Parson said.

“We are trying to establish stronger and new relationships with underserved communities in the district,” Parson said.

There hasn’t been a thorough scientific study of why the District’s hate crime rate against the LGBT community is higher than the national average, but Parson said that he had several working theories.

One theory he put forward was that D.C. has a long history of outreach to the LGBT community and that this relationship has made the community more comfortable with coming to the police.

“We want to increase the comfort level and open up those lines of communication,” Parson said.

Langton said her department’s survey was designed to be complementary to the FBI’s Universal Crime Reporting Program that attempts to track all crimes throughout the country and, in theory, the pair would create a more complete picture of hate crime incidents across the country.

However, the effort is made difficult by every state having unique laws and the lack of a federal requirement for states to report all their data at the same time, according to Langton. The FBI’s report does not line up with D.C. Metro Police’s numbers for 2015, demonstrating the lack of interconnection between the various agencies.

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