In November 2022, a gunman killed five people and injured dozens more at an LGBTQIA+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Soon after, many community members turned to the police and were frustrated by their slow response in charging the shooter with hate crimes. The previous year, another mass shooting targeted Asian-run massage parlors and spas in the Atlanta area, bringing national attention to the violence Asians in the U.S. face. But instead of responding to the tragedy by making real investments in public health and safety, such as providing housing, health care, education, jobs, and community services, the legislative response quickly became carceral. Later that year, President Joe Biden signed the national COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which among other items gave grants to law enforcement agencies to investigate “bias-motivated crimes.” Separately, the NYPD funded an “Asian Hate Crime Task Force” against the wishes of the community.
But trying to police away “hate” is a fool’s errand. As it stands, the nation’s current carceral form of “hate-crime” policing legitimizes a criminal legal system incapable of even stomping out the hate in their own agencies—especially when police officers themselves often commit acts of racism on-duty with impunity. Police departments across the nation are rooted in the same state-sponsored hate that is currently introducing anti-trans legislation throughout the U.S., and the Los Angeles Police Department, for example, receives hundreds of complaints of racial profiling every year against its officers but has for years upheld zero of the allegations. The LAPD’s violence is not an anomaly in policing; policing is violence.
In response to law enforcement’s consistent failure to report and document violence, some nonprofit groups have sprung up around the country in recent years to track hate incidents independently, including the nonprofits Stop AAPI Hate and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. While the groups’ goals—filling in underreported data and acting as witnesses to community violence—may be noble, abolitionists and community activists worry these datasets could be mishandled or misused—or given to police. Rather than act as truly alternative, non-carceral ways to track and address bigotry, state officials have used datasets to bolster the credibility of the criminal legal system.
“We know what the LAPD or any executor of state violence does with data,” said Matyos Kidane, an organizer with Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. “They use it to criminalize the same people they always have: Indigenous, Black, and brown people.”
The kinds of violence that make up what are now considered “hate crimes” are foundational to the U.S. as a settler-colonial nation, but they were not codified as crimes of bigotry until the country passed a federal hate crimes statute in 1968. Since then, hate crime data has been flawed and manipulated. The NYPD, for example, counts crimes stemming from something called “anti-white bias,” separate from “anti-homosexual” or “anti-Jewish” bias, as a hate crime.
Data from nonprofit groups have also been used to push misleading—and even dangerous—talking points: In 2021, provocative data summaries on non-violent and violent hate incidents were presented in media reports, contributing to “crime wave” narratives that were weaponized against Black people but obscuring the actual data underneath. Given that the criminal legal system was developed to police Black people after chattel slavery was legally abolished, it is perhaps unsurprising that, even though hate crimes overwhelmingly impact Black people, a 2021 report by the Movement Advancement Project found that police disproportionately list Black people as the perpetrators of hate crimes.
While community leaders may use hate crime data to advocate for community-driven responses to violence, funding based on that data lacks accountability, and local governments are much quicker to fund police than community organizations. Some organizers note that hate crime data will always be weaponized against marginalized communities. Members of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, an organization based in the Skid Row neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles, have been organizing against data-driven policing and what they call the “stalker state”—the sharing of personal data between the public sector, private entities, and law enforcement—since 2011.
“As far as data collection is concerned, one of the biggest issues … is always that the information is falling into the stalker state, [which is] then used to trace and track and monitor and criminalize and literally stalk people in their lives,” said Hamid Khan, an organizer with Stop LAPD Spying Coalition.
Some private entities conducting data collection have positioned themselves as alternatives to police, despite lacking a clear sense of how their information will remain separate. The nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice, for example, launched a “hate tracker,” writing that “70% of Asian Americans do not feel comfortable reporting to law enforcement,” referencing a 2021 AAPI Data survey. The group has called on people to report to their organization instead and says they will use the data to “push back” against hate, although they are not yet explicit about how. The organization did not respond to a request for comment.
And in response to increased attacks on Asian Americans after the COVID-19 pandemic began, a group of civil rights organizations in March 2020 created Stop AAPI Hate, a website through which community members can report hate incidents independent from law enforcement. The group worked alongside the LAPD to create “resource cards” for AAPI communities and appeared in TV news spots bolstering the LAPD’s image
How, then, can people evaluate data collection and anticipate how their information might be used? Lauren Klein, an associate professor at Emory University and co-author of “Data Feminism,” says that data is a “double-edged sword,” with tremendous power to both effect harm and amplify the power of people who have been marginalized or ignored by dominant, lawmaking organizations. The most successful projects she’s seen are ones that build accountability measures into their processes so that data isn’t manipulated for ends outside of the intended use.
“Were there members of that community involved in the data collection process?” she asked. “Was it not just outside researchers coming in and collecting data on a particular group or about a particular issue? … Ideally, you would also have community input or consent documented at the same time.”
Catherine D’Ignazio, the director of the Data + Feminism Lab, an associate professor at MIT, and another co-author of “Data Feminism,” adds that many impacted communities have created counterdata sets in response to top-down data collection efforts by police departments and governmental bodies, which are known to be incomplete and inaccurate. Mumalá, an organization in Argentina, collects data on femicides to support grassroots protests and disseminate their own information on social media and other platforms not controlled by law enforcement or the government.
“It’s not really about the databases themselves because what we’re talking about anti-carceral [data] is, where did the data go?” D’Ignazio said. “What are they used for, like who uses them to do what?”
As such, the best practice seems to be using data collection as a tool to mobilize communities into collective action rather than as a way to seek legitimization or equity from the state. Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, for example, has created its own reports and popular education materials using data pulled from public records requests to audit and expose the LAPD.
“We can’t create any of these systems in which violence against Asian and Black communities is addressed in a substantial way until we dismantle these [carceral] systems,” Kidane said. “There are autonomous systems in place, even small-scale ones, because we’re here, right? That’s how we survive … We all need to be committed to tearing down and abolishing the police.”
CORRECTION 4/19/23: The original published version of this article incorrectly stated that Stop AAPI Hate shared data with LAPD. The organization asserts that any and all data they collected that was used by LAPD would have been publicly available. The article has been updated to reflect that information.