Posted by Guest on December 12, 2016 in Blog

IMG_1289.JPGBy Mahamad Omar

On Thursday, December 8th, the Arab American Institute held a briefing to discuss the recent post-election uptick in hate incidents, the historic problem of underreporting, and potential reporting and policy solutions. The panel, which attracted a standing room only crowd, included Arjun Singh Sethi, Director of Law and Policy at the Sikh Coalition, Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Madihha Ahussain, Staff Attorney for Muslim Advocates, and Nadia Aziz, Government Relations Director of the Arab American Institute. These community experts shared their outlook on what we are witnessing and possible policy solutions.

Aziz began the discussion by providing context on the recent rise in hate crimes. In the latest FBI hate crimes release in November, a 6% increase in hate crimes was shown. Evidencing the notorious underreporting problem that occurs with hate crimes, 88% of participating law enforcement agencies reported “no incidents”. Aziz added that while there are federal hate crime laws, state laws often don’t protect all minority communities. Five states don’t have any hate crime legislation.

Speaking of the recent rise in hate crimes and incidents, Ahussain said, “Hate crimes are on top of mind for a lot of people right now. They are happening in every part of the country, impacting all sorts of communities.” She went on to cite at least 175 hate crimes recorded by Muslim Advocates from November 2015 to November 2016. Due to underreporting, that figure is most likely an “underestimation”. She argued for the state statutes on hate crimes to be utilized more extensively as one possible solution. This would also include finding avenues to create statutes on hates crimes for the five states where there are none, building on statutes in states to ensure they cover all groups, and broadening the scope of statues on the type of crimes they apply to. 

Sethi went further in highlighting underreporting as a serious issue. “First and foremost, reporting is entirely voluntary, not mandatory. For example, just like we don’t know the number of unarmed African Americans killed by police every year because reporting is voluntary not mandatory, we similarly don’t know with real accuracy the number of hate crime victims in America,” he said. Sethi referenced an Associated Press investigation which found that 17% of local law enforcement departments didn’t report a single hate crime for a period of six years. According to Sethi, this does not mean they recorded zero hate crimes; it means they did not “bother” to report at all.

Sethi also pointed out that communities impacted by hate crimes may be afraid to report incidents, for fear that they will be rejected and stigmatized. A lack of law enforcement training compounds the problem of data collection. “There are plenty of Americans who don’t know the difference between a Muslim and a Sikh American,” Sethi said, “and I’m sure there are plenty of police officers who don’t know that distinction, yet we ask them to make that distinction when reporting a hate crime.” The situation is so severe that the Department of Justice argues as many as 2/3rd of hate crimes go unreported. Sethi noted his concern that the deficiencies will only intensify in the Trump Administration. For solutions, Sethi said many advocates were looking at creating incentives for law enforcement to report hate crimes by either withholding or offering funding. He also suggested creating ways for victims to anonymously report hate crimes in order to protect vulnerable communities.

IMG_1287.JPGBeirich highlighted Department of Justice studies that looked at crime through the lens of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The Survey, made by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, asks Americans if they have been the victim of a crime. Based on those studies, if hate crimes were accurately reported in the United States, there would be about 250,000 cases a year. This dwarfs the 6,000 cases the FBI reports on “an annual basis”. “When I came into the office the day after Trump won the Presidency,” she said, “the Southern Poverty Law Center had the phones ringing off the hook, with people calling us to say they had experienced or seen hate incidents. We started collecting that information and as of a couples days ago we’ve collected information on over 900 incidents. They range from property crime, like swastikas on a synagogue, to very violent assaults.” The number of incidents is “way” out of the norm from what the SPLC typically receives in that timeframe with immigrants and Muslims facing the brunt of violent encounters. Beirich noted that there will likely be another spike around inauguration, and that the SPLC’s collection only captures a portion of hate crimes, meaning that the number of incidents post-election could range in the thousands.

After hearing this background, one attendee asked, “What are some of the other barriers that the law enforcement departments cite as to why they don’t report on hate crime?” Ahussain responded with a specific example. “I attended a training that was for FBI officials and local law enforcement officials on hate crimes. One thing that I learned, and this is inconsistent throughout the country, is in the state of Oregon when you look at the forms law enforcement officials use to report these incidents, they actually are not able to report multiple motives, multiple reasons for an incident. So, for example, if there was a racial component to an incident, as well as a religious component, they would only be able to choose one. That would be what they determined was the largest motivating factor.” She said it was these types of problematic errors and inconsistencies that left law enforcement officials confused and dissuaded from reporting hate crimes, as well as limiting their ability to fully capture the aspects of an incident.

Another attendee among the packed hearing room inquired about the preexisting condition of hate and discrimination in the United States. “You said that hate crimes increased, but I have the feeling the hate was always there. Trump’s speech just encouraged it to increase. But it was always there.” Beirich answered by saying, “Well I do think that what we have done in recent years is underplay the role of racism and bigotry in all of these things in American society. There was this fallacy of a post-racial world with the election of Obama. I think it has always been naïve to think that a country that just 50 years ago had legal segregation on the books and discriminated against a huge percentage of its population from its inception, would not have racial problems. I understand what you’re saying, that the hatred was there, but I think that the election and the way the election was conducted by the Trump campaign gave spark for people to take it further from a private [position] and to act on it.”

For anyone who believes they may have experienced a hate crime or discrimination, the Arab American Institute has compiled a list of resources here and is also asking the public to use #ReportHate to share incidents and raise awareness. To get more information from or report an incident to the organizations which joined AAI for this briefing, click: Southern Poverty Law CenterMuslim Advocates; and The Sikh Coalition

Mahamad Omar is a Fall 2016 Intern at the Arab American Institute.