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On Monday, the FBI released its annual hate crimes report, detailing the highest surge in hate crime reports in more than a decade. But while much of the data released by the agency may seem believable given the racially charged events of the past year, people familiar with the way the data is compiled say there are many reasons not to trust the information.

Take a look at Ohio: the 7th most populous state in the country with more than 11 million people. The total number of hate crimes reported in 2020 is 34 because of a technical error with submissions.

Jacob Kaplan, chief data scientist at Research on Policing Reform and Accountability for the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, says hate crimes are severely underreported. 

“FBI hate crime data is one of the worst datasets ever and should not be used,” Kaplan said in a recent Tweet. “It absolutely should not be used for looking at national trends or trends over time. “

Kaplan told Prism the problem goes even deeper than underreporting: There’s no consistency in which law enforcement agencies report annually. Some state and local law enforcement agencies will, for example, report two hate crimes one year and zero hate crimes the next, making annual comparisons impossible.

“Given the number of large agencies and even entire states reporting no or very few hate crimes in a year, I think a lot of the year-to-year variation of reporting agencies is just decisions to not report,” Kaplan said. 

Brian Levin is a criminal justice professor and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, an organization that tracks hate crime data and advocates for changes in public policy. He noted Ohio’s statistics as just one example of why the data is inaccurate. However, Levin sees the data as valuable because it reveals patterns. He said taken collectively, there’s plenty of information to determine trends and can even be used as a predictor.

“Hate crimes are correlated to catalytic events,” Levin said.

More than 7,000 hate crimes were reported to the FBI in 2020. Law enforcement agencies submitted incident reports involving 7,759 criminal incidents and 10,532 related offenses as being motivated by bias toward race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, and gender identity. This correlates strongly with the rise in anti-Black and anti-Asian sentiment and violence that occurred in relation to racial protests and the coronavirus. Kaplan said widely publicized events may increase the likelihood of victims reporting a hate crime, but the data can’t be used reliably.

“We don’t know what evidence the police had to say that the crime was a hate crime,” he said. 

The determination of hate crime reporting is very specific. According to the Data Explorer, “The presence of bias alone does not necessarily mean that a crime can be considered a hate crime.” Law enforcement must find sufficient evidence that would lead a “reasonable and prudent person to conclude that the offender’s actions were motivated, in whole or in part, by their bias.” Only then can the incident be reported as a hate crime.

Kaplan said one solution is evaluating individual agencies and note what they’re reporting over a certain time period. Using Charlottesville, Virginia, as an example, he said noting a spike after the event that’s larger than the normal variation is an indication this reporting is accurate. This data point could counter the “large spikes and drops seemingly at random times.” 

Another solution is requiring law enforcement agencies to report. Some states have mandatory reporting, but there’s no federal mandate. This is one of the issues Levin is pushing to change through California AB-1126. The bill calls for a Commission on the State of Hate to be formed to get detailed information on hate crime statistics in the state and ensure the information is publicly available. The body will also serve to educate the public on hate crimes.

The commission will “promote intersocial education designed to foster mutual respect and understanding among California’s diverse population,” according to the bill’s text. Education includes a minimum of four annual community forums that are open to the public. The bill is on the Senate floor awaiting a third reading. 

Since inaccurate data won’t be fixed by mandatory reporting, another solution is expanding the scope of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), Kaplan said. With around 160,000 respondents, Kaplan feels the NCVS is currently the best source for hate crime information. Expansion wouldn’t be a total fix. He said there needs to be a larger survey respondent base and more frequent data releases. Currently, the data only gives national estimates years after the survey was conducted. 

Other resources include Stop AAPI Hate, which recently started tracking violence targeted against Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, and the Anti-Defamation League’s crime mapping of anti-Semitism and white supremacist activity. Though comprehensive, Kaplan said these two sources can’t be compared to the NCVS or FBI because not all of the incidents reported are considered crimes.

Williesha Morris is an Alabama-based freelance journalist and copywriter currently focusing on accessibility, mental health, gaming, and tech. She's also highly experienced in administrative assistance...