SEATTLE – It seems counterintuitive, but some law enforcement experts in Washington can see progress in the escalating numbers of reported hate crimes statewide, in the wake of the FBI’s latest annual report released this week showing that the criminal offenses motivated by bias have reached record levels nationwide.
Washington’s reported number of hate crimes rose from 506 reported in 2018 to 542 last year – the latest uptick in what’s been a rising trend documented in recent years in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, the agency’s annual compilation of crime statistics reported by local law enforcement departments nationwide.
With its 7% increase, Washington – which typically rates among the states with the most reported bias crimes – climbed one rung higher into third place in the national rankings for the undesirable category, trailing only California, with 1,015 reported offenses, and New York, with 611.
Washington has such a high ranking in part because people here are comparatively more likely to report the hate crimes that happen to them, experts said – and while higher rates of reporting are a good thing, they also highlight the sheer volume of hate crimes that are committed in Washington and nationwide.
“I think Washington state does a remarkably good job of reporting these incidents because we have an active citizenry that pays more attention to them,” said Monisha Harrell, chair of Equal Rights Washington, a statewide advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer residents.
“But where Washington is absolutely no exception is the crimes we’re seeing here,” Harrell added. “Our top (bias) crimes are against Black people, then it’s religion and LGBTQ. That matches trends across the nation and tells me that clearly, like everywhere else, we’ve got work to do.”
The rising number of reports reflected in the FBI’s stats underscore what anti-bias advocates say they’re routinely experiencing these days.
“We get reports almost daily from the public about incidents of violence or hate,” said Kendall Kosai, interim regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Pacific Northwest. “We are pretty much busier than we’ve ever been before.”
While useful in some ways, the FBI’s bias crime data varies wildly from state to state, largely depending on different levels of participation and assorted reporting methods by local police agencies. In turn, the annual report provides an apples-to-oranges comparison, at best.
“We have to take those (statistics) with a grain of salt,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Ryan Bruett, statewide program coordinator for Hate Crimes and Civil Rights in Washington. “It’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from the data.”
Case in point: Fourteen states reported 20 or fewer hate crimes for all of last year, with Mississippi reporting just five offenses and Alabama failing to record a single one. The number of local police agencies submitting hate crime reports to the FBI last year also ranged from none in Alabama to 208 in New Jersey, illustrating the spottiness in local participation that the FBI relies upon to compile the statistics.
So, in that sense, the number of reported hate crimes in Washington “can be seen as a positive,” Bruett said, because “it shows that, here in Washington, there’s more reporting of these kinds of incidents.”
“And that’s a good thing,” he added. “Much like sexual assault cases, one of our long-running concerns is that hate crimes are under-reported.”
Even in Washington, underreporting of hate crimes remains a problem, said Kosai, the regional ADL director. Several major cities, including Kirkland, Lakewood, Edmonds and Pasco failed to report a single hate crime to the FBI, he noted.
Another factor that can skew the FBI stats is the variety, or total lacking, of state laws defining what constitutes a hate crime. While a set of federal acts that generally outlaw threatening or injuring someone else based on race, color, religion, sexual orientation and other grounds could apply to crimes committed in any state, just 32 states had their own bias crime statutes as recently as five years ago. Today, all but three states have hate crime laws, though they vary significantly from one state to another.
Washington’s malicious harassment law specifies eight categories for bias, including race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and mental, physical or sensory disability. Seattle also has its own hate crime law that includes five additional categories: homelessness, marital status, political ideology, age and parental status.
Beyond using the annual FBI numbers to compare Washington to other states or to its past, experts say the rising numbers here generally tell a story of progress in outreach work. The typical targets of hate crimes – racial, ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants and LGBTQ people – are communities traditionally reluctant to report crimes to police, they said.
“We really want and need people to come forward to report these kinds of crimes,” said Seattle Police Det. Elizabeth Wareing, the only full-time bias crimes coordinator assigned to a police agency in Washington. “So if we’re building trust with the people who are being victimized, we’re going to see higher numbers. We’re just going to have to accept that, and Seattle is a perfect example.”
Most of Washington’s reported hate crime comes through the Seattle Police Department. Unlike most local police agencies in this state or nationwide, Seattle not only tracks offenses motivated by bias but also records crimes that are committed for other reasons but also include an element of bias, as well as “noncriminal bias incidents.”
The latter two categories might include a robbery suspect who commits a crime for financial motivations but shouts a racial slur at a security guard who chases him down; and a passing motorist who yells “go back to your country” to a pedestrian wearing a hijab.
While neither incident would show up as a hate crime in the FBI’s annual report, documenting them helps demonstrate to targeted communities that police take these matters seriously, which in turn builds trust and increases overall reporting, Wareing said.
“Most agencies see the very tip of the iceberg on these incidents,” she said. “We see a little bit more than that.”
Seattle’s reporting approach, updated and posted regularly on the department’s website, also provides a more nuanced perspective than the FBI statistics, Wareing said. In 2020 – just as it has every year since 2015, the year Wareing took on the bias crime coordinator’s role – reported hate crimes have increased. But perhaps more telling is a spike in general reports of incivility and use of inflammatory language, Wareing said.
“These aren’t necessarily even someone committing a crime, just saying something that’s hurtful,” she said. “People are reporting it more and more and our officers are doing a good job of capturing it. And that’s important for people to feel heard.”
While people sometimes equate the term “hate crime” with overt acts of terrorism by white supremacist groups or other extremists, the reports that local agencies are fielding and passing along to the FBI typically are committed by someone who lives or works near you, Wareing and Bruett said.
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