The FBI’s nationwide campaign to encourage people to report more hate crimes has caused concern among conservatives that the goal is pumping up the numbers and advancing a left-wing political agenda.
The Biden administration insists the campaign is a response to underreporting of hate crimes.
Critics warned that the FBI’s hate-crime campaign was more about “virtue signaling” and left-wing electoral politics than law enforcement.
“I think we have to be concerned about this push, especially [considering] the recent efforts to politicize the FBI,” said Zack Smith, a fellow at the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Mr. Smith said there is nothing wrong with the FBI investigation and pursuing hate crimes, as it should for all federal crimes. But he viewed the hate crimes awareness campaign skeptically in light of the recent flap over Attorney General Merrick Garland alerting federal law enforcement to parents threatening school boards, despite evidence the threat was manufactured to advance the political left’s agenda.
“I would suspect that this is part of that larger campaign to virtue signal,” he said of the nationwide campaign. “It’s really troubling especially when you look at the politicization of the Justice Department and also the ever-increasing scope of what some are trying to categorize as a hate crime. We’ve seen an increasing push, particularly from the left, to categorize many things, including things like speech that they don’t like as hate speech.”
State and local law enforcement last year reported 8,263 hate crimes incidents, a 13% increase in offenses motivated by bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity, according to the FBI.
Despite the rising trend, the Biden administration says hate crimes remain significantly underreported.
“We know that some people are afraid to come forward because of a fear or distrust of law enforcement, fear due to their immigration status, or a fear of retribution from their attacker. We understand that, but please know that hate crime are a huge priority for the FBI,” Joseph R. Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Field Office, said when announcing the campaign in his jurisdiction.
The FBI began rolling out its awareness campaign across all of its 56 field offices in June, running ads on billboards, bus stops, social media and on the radio. The campaign, according to the bureau, is designed to encourage “the reporting of all incidents of bias and hate by expanding public education and outreach.”
In Albuquerque, three city buses wrapped with messages encouraging residents to “Speak Up, Be Heard, Report Now,” began circulating in September.
In Phoenix, San Diego and Pittsburgh signs and billboards feature the messages “Protecting Our Communities Together: Report Hate Crimes” and “Help Us Stop The Hate.” They encourage residents to call an FBI hotline or submit tips online.
“Our goal is to protect victims, help them get justice, stop violent offenders from hurting people, and deter people from committing these terrible crimes,” Mr. Bonavolonta said. “We want to make everyone aware of our strategy to tackle this problem and to proactively try and stop these crimes from happening in the first place. Everyone deserves to feel safe in their community, and everyone deserves a voice.”
Despite repeated requests from The Washington Times, the FBI did not provide an estimate of the cost of the awareness campaign.
The FBI’s outreach campaign follows recent steps by Congress to tackle hate crimes after reports of a spate of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans, which many attributed to pinning blame on China for the coronavirus pandemic.
In May, President Biden signed into law the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Prevention Act to increase public outreach and make hate crime reporting more accessible.
It directed Attorney General Merrick B. Garland to “establish online reporting of hate crimes or incidents” and “expand public education campaigns aimed at raising awareness of hate crimes and reaching victims.”
At the signing ceremony, Mr. Biden described the expanse of the hate problem in America.
“My message is — to all of those who think this doesn’t matter to them or this is not a problem: Look around. Look in the mirror. Look in the eyes of your children. Every one of us are lessened — every one of us are lessened, and we’re all hurt by this hate,” he said. “It has a way of seeping, sort of, through cracks in the communities and children who, in fact, wouldn’t have crossed their mind.”
The bill also created grants for state and local law enforcement to implement hate crime awareness programs and reporting initiatives.
The legislation stated that “a complete understanding of the national problem posed by hate crimes is hindered by incomplete data from federal, state, and local jurisdictions.”
The FBI collects hate crime data provided by state, county and municipal law enforcement agencies across the country for its Hate Crime Statistics Program (HSCP), which began in 1990 with Congress’ passing of the Hate Crime Statistics Act. State and local agencies are not required to participate in the program, though many do.
Activists have warned for years of gaps in hate crime reporting. Many say the underreporting stems from victims’ reluctance to report hate crimes and from the FBI’s methodology for collecting hate crime data.
Last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that “only a fraction of the nation’s 18,625 federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies reported even a single hate crime to the FBI in 2020.”
They said the lack of reported hate crimes was alarming.
“In 2020, 85% of the 15,136 agencies that reported data to the FBI reported zero hate crimes,” the group said in their report “Hate Crimes, Explained.” “Those agencies included about 60 cities with populations over 100,000. Another 2,500 jurisdictions, including 10 cities over 100,000, did not report any data.”
They said gaps in state and local law enforcement training may have a significant impact on the reporting.
Before reporting a hate crime to the FBI, local departments are responsible for determining that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the incident was motivated by bias.
The Southern Poverty Law Center doesn’t trust police to make that determination. The group notes that few states have laws in place requiring that law enforcement officers are trained on identifying and investigating hate crimes.
Many departments “have misconceptions about handling hate crimes,” said SPLC.
In 2003, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics began collecting hate crime data separately from the FBI as part of its National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which tallies hate crimes based on victims’ perception that the crime was motivated based on the offenders bias against them, rather a determination by law enforcement that a hate crime occurred.
Each year, the NCVS hate crime data differs significantly from the FBI’s HCSP data.
Between 2005 and 2019, the NCVS recorded on average 246,900 hate crimes per year — far more than were recorded each year by the FBI program. During the same period, the FBI’s tally peaked at just over 8,000 recorded hate crimes.
Republican lawmakers raised concerns about the legislation, including that it will further divide Americans along racial lines.
“Instead of virtue signaling by passing hate crime legislation that divvies up Americans by race to determine their worth on the woke privilege sliding scale, we should fully fund the police so that they can investigate all crimes and provide swift justice for all,” Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, who was one of 62 House Republicans to oppose the bill, told the Aspen Daily News.
Rep. Diana Harshbarger of Tennessee said the new measures introduced by the bill are simply unwarranted.
“Hate crimes against any group should be condemned and are already illegal,” she said.