Why is collecting accurate hate crime statistics so difficult?

Allison Kolarik was making signs for an upcoming ‘Stand Against Hate’ rally in Asbury Park on Sept. 3 when she heard two guys yelling at her friends outside.

“There were certain things said like, I hate you people, I hate liberals,” she said. “I just walked out of the stairs and said, ‘That’s enough, please go away’ and he tried to get around me, tried to get around me the other way, I just said, ‘no, no, go’ and he maced me.”

She described the pain as a burning sensation, but Kolarik says because certain words weren’t used at the time of the attack she was told her case could not be investigated as a hate crime.

“A lot of the things he posted online were brought to my attention after the incident. There was a lot of hate speech against transgender people, homosexuals,” continued Kolarik. “The police know why he was there, the prosecutor knows why he was there. I’m not the first one he’s done it to, but their hands are tied.”

“We know these things are happening and they’re occurring in our communities, but the magnitude of whether it’s more or less, it’s not as measurable because we have those unknowns,” said Elizabeth Williams-Riley, the executive director of the American Conference on Diversity.

It becomes more clear our national hate crime statistics are off when you start to look at the numbers. The FBI collects hate crime data from local law enforcement agencies. But a new study by ProPublica shows thousands of departments chose not to participate, and of the 15,000 that do, about 88 percent reported having no hate crimes at all.

“That includes law enforcement agencies that we called and asked about hate crimes information, and when they went back and researched their own crimes, they realized there had been crimes they had been failing to report and so crimes go unreported all the time,” said the author of the investigation, Ken Schwencke.

In 2016, law enforcement agencies across the country reported a total of a little over 6,000 hate crimes to the FBI. The actual number of hate crimes for that year is close to 250,000 according to the National Crime Victimization Survey.

Schwencke explained why many local law enforcement agencies are fumbling the task. For one, he writes, it’s just a matter of a breakdown when trying to get information from a local agency, to the state, to then be sent to the FBI. But there’s another issue.

“Lack of training is one of the big problems. I would say that confusion as to what constitutes a hate crime, whether they need to mark it down if it’s not under the state statute or what the burden of evidence is needed to mark it down,” said Schwencke.

The laws on hate crimes vary from state to state. In New Jersey a hate crime or bias crime is characterized as an offense against a person or property on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender, race, disability, color, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation or national origin.

“Luckily in New Jersey we have the division of civil rights who will independently investigate cases where they feel there is enough evidence for,”

Fuscarino says even though protections in New Jersey are relatively strong, it can be hard to prove.

“In New Jersey, there are a lot of cases that aren’t considered hate crimes, and people in the state are frustrated by that often. But I’d like to believe that’s not because of improper or no training at that local police department and rather it’s because there’s not enough evidence to prosecute it as a hate crime,” said Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality.

But where does this leave people like Kolarik? The data doesn’t count her story.

“Nobody wants a hate crime under their county record. Nobody wants that, but it’s happening, It’s happening and it’s happening more. It happened to me,” said Kolarik.

The question is how many more stories have we not heard?

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