How the FBI fails to count hate crime in America

The FBI’s annual report simply can’t be trusted. It fails to tell the full story. The Justice Department and the FBI must strengthen the 1990 Hate Crime Statistics Act.

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Ching Yung, right, marches with dozens of people from Grant Park to Chinatown to end anti-Asian violence, Saturday afternoon, March 27, 2021, following a rise in anti-Asian violence and the shooting in Georgia where a white man killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

On March 19, 2020, then-President Donald Trump was holding his notes for his daily coronavirus press conference. A sharp-eyed reporter noticed that he had crossed out the word “corona” and replaced it with “Chinese” to describe COVID-19.

At about the same time in Chicago, the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce later reported, businesses in Chinatown were beginning to see a 50% drop in customers.

The bigotry game was taking its toll, and advocacy groups began keeping count.

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Stop AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Hate documented about 3,800 reports of hateful incidents in the first year of the pandemic. And the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found that anti-Asian American hate crimes reported to police between 2019 and 2020 climbed by almost 150%, even as reported incidents of hate crime overall declined by 7%.

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The best measure of the rise and fall of hate crime in America, though, should be an annual FBI statistical report that has been required by Congress now for 30 years. The report, unfortunately, is always woefully incomplete, chronically understating the facts of the matter.

Of the more than 18,000 policing agencies in the United States that are asked — but not required — to report hate crime data to the FBI, more than 3,000 provided the FBI with no crime data at all for 2019. And of those that did, only 1 in 7 reported a single incident of a hate crime.

The FBI’s annual report simply can’t be trusted. It fails to tell the full story. The Justice Department and the FBI need to reinforce the Hate Crime Statistics Act and reform how law enforcement agencies report hate crime data. 

Among the law’s practical problems are these:

  • Law enforcement agencies are not required to submit data to the FBI.
  • Officers frequently are not properly trained to spot and report hate crimes.
  • Local prosecutors, not police, decide what is charged as a hate crime in some jurisdictions. The government does not collect data from the courts.
  • Some groups, such as Asians and Latinos, are categorized as monoliths. Agencies often aggregate reports by ethnicity, lumping incidents into broader racial categories instead of specific groups.
  • Immigration status and language barriers discourage some victims from filing a report.

In 2019, according to the FBI report, there were 7,314 hate crime incidents, including 158 against people of Asian descent. We would urge you to treat those numbers — as well the statistics for 2020 to be released later this year — with skepticism.

In January, President Joe Biden signed a memorandum condemning “inflammatory and xenophobic rhetoric” against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. And he ordered the attorney general to explore opportunities to combat hate crimes. 

That effort should begin, common sense says, with finally sizing up — accurately and fully — the depth and breadth of the problem.

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