Race-based hate crimes jumped in Washington, D.C., last year even as most other types of bias crimes decreased, with analysts saying such incidents could be vastly underreported among minority groups uncomfortable coming forward to authorities.
D.C. police say that of the 18 race-based hate crimes in 2013, the majority of victims were white and the majority of suspects black. The number of incidents was up from the 13 race-based bias crimes reported in 2012.
The disclosure comes as a wave of protests and unrest after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, has highlighted racial tension in the St. Louis suburb and prompted widespread calls for an evaluation of race relations between communities and their police departments.
The number of hate crimes reported in the District fell overall from 81 in 2012 to 70 in 2013.
The low level of reported race-based hate crimes, including the small number in which minorities were victims, could be a sign that minority victims are reluctant to report crimes, said David C. Friedman, director of the D.C. regional office of the Anti-Defamation League.
“In many African-American communities and other parts of the country, no matter what the demographics of the police department are, there are levels of concern” with coming forward, Mr. Friedman said.
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Census data in 2013 put the District’s black population at just under 50 percent, with whites making up 35 percent of the population and Hispanics another 10 percent.
Of the 18 victims of race-motivated hate crimes last year, 10 were white, four were black, two Hispanic, one Asian and one of another race, according to D.C. police.
General mistrust of police among minority communities or language barriers among foreign-born populations could be reasons that victims don’t report, Mr. Friedman said.
“In the case of the District, there are very few hate crimes reported against Latinos and Asian-Americans,” he said. “But it would be wrong to conclude that there are none occurring.”
Data from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics shows a steep drop-off in the nationwide number of perceived hate crimes compared to the number actually reported to police and eventually classified as hate crimes. The department’s surveys indicated that from 2004-2012, an annual average of 270,000 victims believed they had suffered a hate crime. Of those, only an average of 104,000 were reported to police and only 14,000 were officially classified as hate crimes, said Michael Planty, chief of victimization statistics at BJS.
“You can see the social and bureaucratic kind of filters that draw people off,” Mr. Planty said.
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Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. police department’s branch of the Fraternal Order of Police, agrees there are likely many more race-motivated crimes occurring in the city, but officers may not always have the evidence they need to support the classification as a hate crime.
“Unless the person is expressing ‘This is because you’re gay, you’re black, you’re white, you’re Latino,’ it’s really, really hard to capture if it’s a hate crime,” Mr. Burton said. “What I’m hearing from my guys suggests that there are more hate crimes out there, but the suspects are not saying anything.”
In its 2013 annual report, which detailed the hate crime data, the police department did not provide any analysis of incidents that targeted victims by race. A department spokeswoman was not immediately able to say Tuesday what kind of conclusions police have drawn from the data.
Mr. Burton said he was not entirely surprised by the fact that 13 of the 18 racially motivated hate crime suspects were black.
“Regardless of what the category of crime is, the vast majority of the people committing those crimes will be black. It’s just a demographic issue,” Mr. Burton said.
The hate crimes recorded by police most often turned out to be assaults. Police said of the 70 hate crimes last year, 31 were simple assaults and 12 were more serious attacks. Other crimes included 12 instances in which a person made threats, eight incidents of destruction of property and seven robberies.
Under D.C. law, if a person is found guilty of a hate crime, the court may fine the offender up to 1 times the maximum fine and imprison him or her for up to 1 times the maximum term authorized for the underlying crime.
The hate crime figures have fluctuated in recent years, with more overall hate crimes (90 incidents) and more race-based crimes (28 incidents) reported in 2011, for example.
Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, cautioned about the difficulty of drawing conclusions from small sample sizes.
“With numbers as small as these, I think it’s hard to tell what significance they might have,” Mr. Spitzer said.
But Mr. Spitzer questioned the degree to which some groups might be more likely to report hate crimes.
For at least five years, the hate crimes most frequently reported to police targeted victims based on sexual orientation. And although gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy groups have in recent years criticized Chief Cathy L. Lanier’s restructuring of a specialized liaison unit that worked with the community, Mr. Friedman said long-standing relationships may have bolstered reporting from that sector.
Citing his own work as chairman of a task force that examined police response to hate crimes targeting people based on sexual orientation, Mr. Friedman said that community organization by LGBT groups that provide aid to victims has likely increased the frequency with which victims report hate crimes.
“When people report, it tends to be an issue of trust of police,” he said.
Mr. Burton said D.C. police earned a great reputation nationally for the work it did with the LGBT community and noted the overall diversity of the agency, which has other liaison units that work specifically with other minority groups.
“Generally, I believe our police department is sensitive to these issues and is progressive in handling it,” Mr. Burton said.