The number of hate crimes in Chicago dropped 16 percent in 2017 from the year before, according to Chicago Police Department data.

Hate crimes were on the rise in 2016, with 73 incidents, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of data acquired through Freedom of Information Act requests found.

The first two months of 2017 saw 23 such incidents, then the pace slowed. By the end of the year, the police had classified 61 cases as hate crimes in 2017.

It’s not clear why the numbers dropped or whether that means fewer such crimes actually occurred, experts say. They note that hate crimes typically are underreported because victims frequently don’t call the police, or investigations can’t pin down motives involving bias.

“In terms of the numbers being down, I don’t know if hate crimes are on the way down,” says Julie Justicz, who is director of the Hate Crime Project of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which works with victims.

Julie Justicz, director of the Hate Crime Project of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights

Julie Justicz, Hate Crime Project director. | Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights

“There is a huge discrepancy in information and education about what a hate crime is,” Justicz says. “Would a community fear reporting it? Many are people who would not want to go to the police at all.”

Under Illinois law, criminal charges can be elevated to a hate crime if an incident occurs “by reason of the actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or national origin of another individual or group of individuals.”

The police and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office can deem an incident a hate crime. That designation can carry a more severe penalty than someone otherwise would face if convicted.

A crime that might ordinarly be considered a misdemeanor could be elevated to a felony.

The FBI releases yearly data of hate crimes, but its 2017 numbers aren’t out yet. The year before, the number of hate crimes nationally was up 4.6 percent over 2015, FBI numbers show.

“New York and Chicago are still near their recent highs,” according to Brian Levin, who runs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

“There are national trends, but the regional ones are far more important,” Levin says. “Demographic changes, local conflict, serial offenders, organized hate groups and political tension” all play a role.

Hate-crime experts including Justicz and Levin have praise for Chicago and Cook County for their policies for investigating hate crimes. The Chicago Police Department has a three-member Civil Rights Unit that investigates all reports of such crimes.

In Chicago, the majority of hate crimes have been directed toward people who are African-American, LGBT and Jewish, the police figures show — though there also were eight anti-Muslim hate crimes last year.

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Through March 6 of this year, six incidents have been found to be hate crimes, according to the police data. These numbers don’t include Shane Sleeper, who was charged with a series of hate crimes in the past week.

According to police reports:

  • In an incident in a Lincoln Square apartment laundry room, two residents were reported to have called another residnet a “dirty Muslim” and kicked a laundry basket while saying “f*** your religion.”
  • In an incident in Lake View, a synagogue got an email that said someone with a Kuwaiti passport “will do a knife attack in your temple he is anti Israel.”
  • In Boystown, a black man allegedly approached a white business owner, saying. “I hate you Irish people,” and later ripped a piece of cracked concrete from the curb and hurled it at the man’s head. That’s the only Chicago crime classified as a hate crime this year in which there has been an arrest.

The police have worked to get out the word about reporting hate crimes and how such investigations work — including a community meeting the department’s 17th District hosted with Muslim residents ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, that was to include a discussion of a “Punish a Muslim Day” flyer circulated in the Chicago area earlier this year.

Even when the police are able to label an incident a hate crime, few cases result in arrests or convictions. Between 2011 and 2017, a total of 77 hate-crime cases have been presented to the state’s attorney’s office, according to the agency’s data.

Thirty-three of those countywide cases resulted in a guilty plea or finding — though just a fraction of those were for the hate crime-specific charges.

Out of 179 hate-crime charges considered during that period, 43 — or less than a quarter of them — resulted in a conviction.

“Most hate crimes do not end up being prosecuted as hate crimes,” Levin says. “What has to be established is that it has to be a hate crime beyond a reasonable doubt. It can’t be just an add-on if it will increase the penalty severely.”