Posted by Guest on June 06, 2019 in Blog

“A doctor cannot diagnose a patient without knowing the full set of symptoms,” testified Susan Bro, whose daughter, Heather Heyer, was killed at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Bro delivered her testimony before the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties during the first in a three-part series of hearings entitled “Confronting White Supremacy.” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) invoked Bro’s discerning words in questioning the Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, Calvin Shivers, during the second part of the series held this Tuesday, June 4.

Maloney pushed Shivers to explain how the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which has a mandate to collect hate crime data under the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 (HCSA), reported fewer than 7,200 hate crime incidents in 2017 while a related Justice Department report, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), cites nearly 300,000. Even after restricting NCVS data for a more accurate comparison with the HCSA data, the number of incidents is still greater than 115,000, which is 16 times more than the FBI’s figure.

Among these omissions are some of the country’s highest profile hate crime incidents. According to FBI hate crime data, for example, the Charlottesville Police Department reported zero hate crime incidents for August 12, 2017, the same day that an avowed white supremacist, James Alex Fields, plowed his Dodge Charger into a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, killing Bro’s daughter. Fields was convicted on federal hate crime charges, but according to FBI hate crime data, the incident never happened.

Shivers blamed the discrepancy on the antiquated reporting format known as the Standard Reporting System (SRS), which many law enforcement agencies use to report crimes to the FBI. And Shivers was right: the SRS is limited in its capacity to communicate certain information about a given incident. For instance, because of something known as the hierarchy rule, the format only captures the most serious offense for a given incident. As a result, for an incident involving both assault and vandalism, the SRS would mark the incident as an assault, dropping the vandalism offense from the data. This is one reason why the FBI plans to phase out the SRS by 2021, replacing it with the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which is a far more comprehensive and detailed form of data collection. NIBRS even contains a field where law enforcement can indicate, explicitly, whether an offense was bias-motivated (i.e. a hate crime).

Shivers’s claim, however, is misleading for two reasons:

  • First, FBI policy regards a hate crime, for data collection purposes, as a “traditional offense…with an added element of bias.” In other words, SRS can identify incidents with “an element of bias” as hate crime incidents if correctly reported. Additionally, because law enforcement agencies that use SRS to report crimes must complete a supplemental incident report form for hate crime incidents, the hierarchy rule, which may affect the visibility of other crimes, does not affect hate crime reporting in the way Shivers seemed to indicate.
  • Second, NIBRS is not the panacea that Shivers suggested it to be. According to the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer website, the Commonwealth of Virginia has been 100 percent NIBRS-compliant since 2012, which either indicates that the FBI’s website is incorrect or bolsters Representative Maloney’s argument that the absence of Heather Heyer’s murder from FBI statistics “points out that something is really being underreported in our country.”

The omission of Heyer’s murder was likely the product of poor training. If a police officer does not know how to identify a hate crime—a symptom—she will not report it; if she does not report it, the FBI will not present it; if the FBI does not present it, Congress will not know about it, and if Congress—the doctor, in this case—does not know “the full set of symptoms,” how could they ever hope to treat the problem?

Developing an appropriate response to white supremacist violence requires knowing where it takes place, how it happens, who commits it, and whom it affects. The Arab American Institute is not alone in this belief. Throughout both hearings, members on both sides of the aisle advocated for better statistics and crime reporting. Several panelists, including Bro, implored Members of Congress to support the Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer Hate Crime Reporting Act, which would incentivize states to conduct better training, report hate crime incident data more consistently, and engage with the communities most affected.

While some feel compelled to take immediate, drastic action to address white supremacist violence, such as passing a new federal criminal statute or giving additional authorities and resources to law enforcement, such changes are unnecessary and potentially harmful to communities of color that have historically faced the brunt of invasive and discriminatory national security or law enforcement practices. The erosion of important privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protections in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks should serve as a reminder of the consequence of hastily adding more tools to the prosecutor’s proverbial toolbox.


This post was guest-authored by AAI Summer Policy intern Daniel Buchman.