Hate crimes like the recent mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh rose 17 percent last year. Now, law enforcement says one of the challenges in responding to these crimes is finding out about them in the first place.
Law enforcement agencies reported 7,175 hate crimes occurred in 2017, up from 6,121 in 2016. The surge was fueled in part by more police departments reporting hate crimes to the FBI, but many hate crimes are still going unreported.
Fifty-four percent of violent hate crimes that took place between 2011 and 2015 went unreported, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
And the FBI says 88% of the agencies that are supposed to report hate crime data to the bureau said they had zero incidents in 2016.
It’s a problem Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein raised last month at a roundtable with members of law enforcement from across the country.
"We need your help to help us understand the reasons why victims don’t report hate crimes, we also need to understand the barriers that law enforcement officers and agencies face in reporting hate crimes to the FBI," Rosenstein said.
Charlottesville Chief of Police RaShall Brackney, says that’s because victims of hate crimes often don’t feel safe in their communities.
"We in society, those persons who are victimized by hate crimes are already often already marginalized in the community," she said. "So, if you’re African American and don't feel welcome and don’t have a relationship with law enforcement, you’re less likely to report. If you’re immigration status is in jeopardy, you’re less likely to report."
And she says a breakdown of trust in the police may also be behind the underreporting.
"We have to take ownership in that we have not allowed there to be ease of access by which to do that. There’s a lack of police legitimacy, a lack of police trust in most of those communities. So, we have to provide the opportunity for people to feel safe reporting otherwise they are going to continue to be victimized and we as a society then allow that victimization," she said.
Dennis Shepard, whose son Matthew was murdered because he was gay 20 years ago in Wyoming, told law enforcement at the roundtable many LGBTQ victims don’t report hate crimes because they are not protected by anti-discrimination laws.
"When you can still be fired for being LGBTQ in 30 states, why are they going to report?" he said.
Now the Department of Justice is unveiling new initiatives to tackle the issue, including a $840,000 grant for a new research study on hate crimes data collection and a new federal hate crimes website.
"A one stop portal with information about all of our resources concerning hate crimes. Law enforcement officers, prosecutors, members of the public can readily find information on our website about resources to prevent and prosecute hate crimes," Rosenstein said of the website.
But Brackney says these initiatives on their own won’t be enough to stem the problem.
"We put things on websites and we assume that the average user has access to those websites or would know how to navigate systems. So these things need to be pushed down much more locally," she said. "It’s a step, but if its not part of a unique and comprehensive plan by which we roll out constant continuous access, resources, education, training, and making people feel welcome in the community, then the likelihood that they’re going to engage those resources is going to be zero."