The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported a 17 percent increase in the number of hate crimes committed from 2016 to 2017, an escalation that probably isn’t a surprise to anyone given the toxic rhetoric and discriminatory policies emanating from the highest office of the U.S. government.
But the actual increase in the number of hate crimes is likely much higher because people are justifiably afraid to report them. High profile attacks—like the shooter who murdered 11 people at the Pittsburgh synagogue, the shooter who killed two Black patrons in a Kentucky grocery store and the killing of three transgender people in just one week in September—are just recent incidents that were reported in the news. But there are far more incidents that don’t make headlines, and even more than that are not reported to law enforcement at all.
The FBI itself admits that its own numbers are severely underreported. Imagine what those numbers would be if community members actually felt safe reporting.
In order for all communities to be safe, its members must be able to report crimes without fear. The first step towards that safety is that law enforcement must build trust with its community members. But as the government and law enforcement only grow increasingly hostile toward people of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ individuals, women and other targeted communities, that already existing mistrust has continued to erode at a rapid pace.
A Black person may be afraid to call the police because, as we have seen over and over, the police routinely assault, harass and even murder Black people. A Latinx person has to worry that in reporting a crime, law enforcement may both mistreat them and turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, regardless of their immigration status, which could mean detention or deportation not just for themselves, but possibly their family members and neighbors as well. LGBTQ folks have to worry that their police contact might be met with homophobia or transphobia—not only dismissing their reports but increasing their risk of harm.
If you consider the multi-identity lives most people lead, such as a Black trans immigrant woman, the risk of harm in reporting harm escalates beyond belief.
This year’s increase in hate crimes includes an increase in those motivated by race or ethnicity of 18 percent and a 23 percent increase in those motivated by religion. Incidents targeting Jewish people in particular increased by 37 percent. While most categories in the FBI’s report saw an increase in hate crimes, some didn’t—but that doesn’t mean that those communities are not facing heightened levels of harassment or violence.
Incidents targeting Muslims declined by 11 percent, for example, but 2017 still marked the third-highest number on record of incidents against those perceived to be Muslims. What the numbers tell us, then, is that Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, Middle Easterners and South Asians do not feel safe reporting all of the harassment and attacks they are facing, particularly based upon the government’s rhetoric, policies and actions of late.
After all, Trump has brought openly anti-Muslim people into his administration. He has categorically banned Muslims from certain countries from coming to the U.S. to attend weddings and graduations, mourn the loss of loved ones or seek life-saving health care treatment. He implemented so-called “extreme vetting” targeting Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, Middle Easterners and South Asians, creating more barriers to coming to the U.S. and collecting data on their social media profiles and their contacts living in the U.S., including citizens.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric is emanating from the very top of our government; when you combine that with the fear of being targeted by local law enforcement, ICE and FBI, is it any wonder that Muslim community members would be fearful of coming forward to report hate crimes? It is quite possible that hate crime reporting by vulnerable communities will continue to drop in this environment and make this rapidly growing safety issue impossible to address, as we will have even less understanding of its volume and scope.
The more that hate crimes are not reported, the less safe we all are in our communities. And until law enforcement agencies and officers can build trust with communities—on the terms of those communities—we will not see accurate reporting of hate crimes, and targeted groups will not be able to be wholly protected or served under the law.
Manar Waheed is senior legislative and advocacy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
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