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Why Police Struggle to Report One of The Fastest-Growing Hate Crimes

Gender has passed religion and sexual orientation as one of the most common motivations behind hate crimes, but recognizing it is a challenge for many police departments.

If you ask people across the country whether they have been a victim of a bias crime because of their gender or gender identity, tens of thousands have stories to tell.

An analysis from the Justice Department estimates that between 2013 and 2017 more than 55,000 hate crimes targeting victims’ gender took place on average each year. That’s almost 30 percent of all hate crimes reported by victims.

But you wouldn’t know that from the most recent hate crime statistics released earlier this month by the FBI. The new data show that last year police departments around the country reported 215 gender-related hate crimes targeting men, women, transgender and nonbinary people. They represented 3 percent of the total incidents in the FBI’s numbers.

That figure does not include hate crimes motivated by more than one bias—an assault against a transgender black woman, for example, may be motivated by their gender identity as well as their race. It also doesn’t include crimes against the LGBT community as a whole, which the FBI categorizes differently.

For years, the number of hate crimes in the FBI's annual report has been consistently lower than that in the victim surveys. Still, the discrepancy between the two reports is greater in gender-related hate crime than any other type. This widening gap reflects key challenges for police departments dealing with hate crimes, especially those against women and transgender people, scholars and law enforcement officials say.

Gender-related Hate Crimes

Last year, police departments across the country reported 215 hate crimes motivated by the victim's gender or gender identity. That is likely a significant undercount. Between 2013 and 2017, the Justice Department's victims survey shows more than 55,000 hate crimes were motivated by gender each year on average.

Police reports and the victims surveys capture different aspects of the criminal justice system. The survey asks American households each year about their experience with crime, whereas the FBI collects numbers from local police departments that voluntarily participate in its Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

Last year, more than 16,000 law enforcement agencies provided hate crime figures to the FBI, and more than 80 percent of them—including every agency in the state of Alabama—reported that no hate crimes occurred in their jurisdictions at all.

Only about half of hate crime victims report the incidents to the police, said Frank Pezzella, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Pezzella’s research on the victims survey shows the top three reasons for not reporting to law enforcement are “reported to a different official,” “not important to police” and “personal matter.”

For example, hate crime victims may choose to tell their bosses or school officials instead, or they may choose not to report it at all because they don’t want to be outed by the police, Pezzella said. That’s more likely to happen in groups that historically do not trust law enforcement, like the transgender community.

Even when people choose to report hate crimes, what they believe to be an act of hate may not meet the legal standard.

In the criminal justice system, a “hate crime” is a two-part legal concept. The act must first be criminal, such as an assault or robbery. Then prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the motivation behind the crime is bias against the victim’s protected attributes, such as race, religion, sexual orientation or gender. In most jurisdictions that have hate crime laws, the punishment is more severe for people who have committed a bias crime.

Another challenge is police officers often do not recognize the bias motive or ask the victim if they believe the incident is a hate crime, said Jack McDevitt, the director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University.

“Police are prone to ask the victim about bias motivation when there is no other clear motivation,” McDevitt said. An example would be if someone was beaten, but the attacker did not take their wallet. “When it comes to rape victims, police don’t usually ask them if they are targeted because of their gender.”

Last year, out of 7,120 hate crimes in the FBI's report, the most common underlying offenses were intimidation, vandalism and simple assault. There were 22 rapes categorized as hate crimes.

Some police departments may not report gender bias crimes because many state laws do not protect gender or gender identity in the same way that they protect race, religion or sexual orientation. An analysis by the Anti-Defamation League found that of the 45 states that have hate crime statutes, 31 named gender as protected under the law, and fewer specifically protect gender identity.

Gender Hate Crime Laws by State
While most states have laws that can impose more severe penalty for hate crimes, many do not include gender as a protected attribute under state laws, and fewer include gender identity.

The same pattern exists on the federal level as well. When the Hate Crime Statistics Act passed in 1990, it did not include data collection for gender or gender identity bias crimes. The FBI only started collecting data on these crimes in 2013, following the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

While thousands of jurisdictions struggle to identify and report gender-related hate crimes, Washington D.C. leads the nation in the number logged by its police department.

Last year, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department reported 34 gender and gender identity bias hate crimes, more than any other jurisdiction in the country. That's the same number Seattle, Los Angeles and New York City—the next largest cities with the most gender-related hate crimes—reported combined.

“There are some that see the numbers that we report and think that it’s a reflection of something necessarily horribly gone wrong,” said Lt. Brett Parson of the D.C. police department, but he believes it represents the progress the agency is making on addressing hate crimes properly.

Parson commands the department’s Special Liaison Branch, which works with traditionally underserved communities to understand their needs. The branch includes the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Liaison Unit, which started in 1999 with two officers and has grown to a team of more than 35.

Parson said he suspected a lot of jurisdictions would confuse anti-transgender crimes with anti-gay hate crimes.

For example, someone from the transgender community may be assaulted by a person yelling a slur that is generally perceived as homophobic. It’s up to the police to be aware of who the victim is and how they identify.

“I’m not sure that a lot of our peers in law enforcement understand that nuance,” Parson said. “Certainly, you can’t depend upon the people committing these offenses to get it right.”

Weihua Li Twitter Email is a data reporter at The Marshall Project. She uses data analysis and visualization to tell stories about the criminal justice system. She studied journalism and comparative politics at Boston University and graduated from Columbia University with a master's degree in data journalism.