The Seattle Times recently reported that an epidemic of hate crimes is taking place in the Emerald City. According to the newspaper, more than 500 bias incidents were reported to Seattle police in 2018 alone, and this figure represents “an increase of nearly 400 percent since 2012.” However, this widely circulated claim is, at the very least, misleading. An examination of the Seattle data indicates that fewer than 40 actual criminal cases resulting from real, serious hate incidents were successfully prosecuted between 2012 and 2017. This provides an excellent case study of how media coverage of flash-point issues such as hate crime can—whether intentionally or not—sensationalize and exaggerate the urgency of social problems.
In the Times piece, headlined “Reported Hate Crimes and Incidents up Nearly 400% in Seattle Since 2012,” reporter Daniel Beekman suggests that the problem continues to get worse, estimating that since 2017 alone, hate cases have jumped 25 percent. He also reports that “community organizations say hate crimes are a serious issue,” and cites sources claiming that “more support from the city” is needed to battle hate crime. Beekman’s tone is relatively measured. But others have delivered more alarmist takes, creating fear that minority residents may be swept up in an “epidemic” of hate.
A look through the data that has been made available from Seattle’s office of the City Auditor reveals that there is little basis for panic. First, most of the situations contained in the 500-plus documented incidents for 2018 turned out not to be hate crimes at all. Out of 521 confrontations or other incidents reported to the police at some point during the year, 181 (35 percent) were deemed insufficiently serious to qualify as crimes of any kind. Another 215 (41 percent) turned out to involve some minor element of bias (i.e., an ethnic slur used during a fight), but did not rise to the definition of hate crime. Only 125, or 24 percent, qualified as potential hate crimes—i.e., alleged “criminal incidents directly motivated by bias.” For purposes of comparison: There are 745,000 people living in Seattle, and 3.5-million in the metro area.
Even that 125 figure represents an overestimate, at least as compared to what most of us imagine to be the stereotypical hate crime (of, say, a gang of white racists beating up someone of a different skin color). Seattle’s remarkably broad municipal hate-crime policies cover not only attacks motivated by racial or sexual animus, but also those related to “homelessness, marital status, political ideology, age and parental status.”
Indeed, if there is a single archetypal Seattle hate incident that emerges from this data, it would seem to involve a mentally ill homeless man yelling slurs at someone. According to the City Auditor, 22 percent of hate perps were “living unsheltered” at the time of their crime, 20 percent were mentally ill, and 20 percent were severely intoxicated.
The conviction rate in cases such as these has been very low. As Beekman notes, 398 reports of actual hate crime, i.e. instances of “malicious harassment” that were “verified by the Department,” occurred between 2012 and 2017. Of these, 128 were referred for prosecution, indicating authorities’ baseline belief that the accusation was not a hoax and that the police had managed to identify and apprehend a viable suspect. But not all of those cases were prosecuted. And only 37 of those that were prosecuted resulted in a conviction for malicious harassment between 2012 and 2017. That is an average of about six per year—fewer than half of which likely involved a sane, sober, non-homeless offender. That’s hardly an epidemic of hate.
So why is this report getting so much publicity? Beekman notes in passing that in 2015, Seattle’s police department hired a full-time Bias Crimes Coordinator, who made it a priority to engage in “community outreach.” This is apparently seen as an approved practice: “Jurisdictions that report more hate crimes are typically seen as leaders in hate-crime response efforts because high reporting can indicate law enforcement is prioritizing these crimes.” And, indeed, one can see how much good can come out of increased community engagement (of any variety). But in this case, a cynic might argue that the coordinator has had every reason to generate more hate-crime reports—since the existence of such reports helps justify the newly created position. One rather remarkable result is that Seattle has, during some recent years, reported more hate crimes than most U.S. states—including Florida. (To its credit, the City Auditor has bluntly acknowledged that: “A rise in reported hate crimes does not necessarily mean there are more of these crimes occurring.”)
Seattle’s case does not stand in isolation: The scope of hate crime often gets exaggerated all over the United States. In my research, I’ve found that widely reported “surges” in hate crime often turn out to be mere artifacts of new reporting techniques, with actual conviction rates remaining low.
For example, one of the most widespread claims is that the number of reported hate crime incidents increased nationally by roughly 1,000 between 2016 and 2017, a 17 percent increase that often is casually attributed to Donald Trump. A representative 2018 CNN piece, for instance, was headlined “Hate Crimes Increase by 17% in 2017, FBI Report Finds,” and opened with an in-set video featuring a former white supremacist discussing today’s charged “political climate.”
Reality proves to be more complex and mundane. One reason for the increase in reported bias crime between 2016 and 2017 turns out to be the fact that roughly 1,000 additional law-enforcement agencies contributed hate-crime data to the FBI in 2017. As one newspaper pointed out, each of these newly reporting departments would each have had to report an average of only about one hate crime annually to account for the full increase. There may well be no surge in hate crimes at all.
Nationally, convictions in hate crime cases are also rare. Figures from California, the largest state by population, indicate that 931 felony and misdemeanor hate crimes were reported to police in 2016. However, only 307 (33 percent) of those cases resulted in the identification of a suspect and referral to a prosecutor, of which 220 (24 percent) resulted in the filing of criminal charges, with only 51 (5.5 percent) resulting in a hate-crime conviction—about one per week. Another source, the eminently reliable Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, pegs the federal hate crime conviction rate at 11 percent: The Justice Department has received 270 bias-crime cases since 2009, and obtained convictions in only 29 of them. One obvious reason for this low conviction rate is that many supposed hate crimes are probable hoaxes—and those which are not hoaxes often turn out to be un-prosecutable incidents of anonymous graffiti or shouted slurs.
When the media suggest that America has become a sort of dystopia in which minorities are constantly under threat of mob attack, with even a prominent Black actor supposedly being beaten in the wee hours by MAGA-hatted racists in a Chicago yuppie district, it is a good idea to check the actual data. The same rule should apply to all sensationalist claims, whether it’s community activists trying to convince us of a hate-crime epidemic, immigration hawks trumpeting a supposed surge in violent crime by undocumented migrants, or culture warriors claiming that we are under siege from Islamist terrorists. Fear sells newspapers and generates clicks. But to flip Ronald Reagan’s famous axiom on its head: When it comes to media reports of crime surges, first verify, then trust.
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