Will Hate Crime Data Reflect Crimes Against Muslims?


Muslim Advocates, a national legal advocacy and educational organization, has an unsettling map on its website. Against the geographical backdrop of the United States, more than 90 threats, violence, and acts of vandalism committed in 2016 against Muslims or those who appear to be Muslim mar the map. What’s worse, this map is likely an underrepresentation of these crimes, and does not yet take into account the uptick in post-election violence. Given how crucial data is to the criminal justice system, we should not be left with holes when it comes to reporting and combating hate crimes.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began collecting hate crimes data in 1990, after the passage of the Hate Crime Statistics Act. This data is used in many ways: to identify areas where additional law enforcement training may be necessary; to direct resources to areas where they will be most effective;  and to coordinate community service groups to respond to crimes; to name a few. But the data also has a larger, more symbolic meaning. Collecting and publishing this data is a way for the FBI to recognize and communicate the combined impact these crimes have on our communities and our nation as a whole.

Unfortunately, there are no means by which the FBI can compel reporting, and thus the data suffers when cities do not report. In 2015, the most recent year for which we have hate crimes data, the vast majority of participating law enforcement agencies — 88 percent — reported zero hate crimes. Even worse, thousands of agencies did not report at all. How many marks on Muslim Advocates’ map will be excluded from 2016 data reported to the FBI? And what is the cost to people in our communities if they do not see themselves and the crimes they have experienced reflected in the data?

In addition to holes in federal data, it is important to note that five states — Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, Wyoming — do not even have hate crime laws on the books. The remaining states have a patchwork of laws, some more comprehensive than others. The absence of comprehensive hate crime legislation in every state marginalizes communities impacted by violence even further, and sends the message that crimes motivated by bias are unworthy of our attention. We know this is not the case.

For the first time, the 2015 data does include crimes committed against Arabs, Sikhs, and Hindus, or those who appear to fit into those categories. Thanks to the work of a broad coalition, we now know that crimes against these individuals, as well as those who are (or are perceived to be) Muslim, are on the rise; crimes against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslims increased by 67 percent in 2015. The FBI now has the opportunity to analyze this trend and thus direct resources and training to most effectively fight these crimes.

The Torah teaches that we are obligated to pursue justice for all (Deuteronomy 16:20) and that we must always take action when we see an injustice (Leviticus 19:16). I am proud to work for the National Council of Jewish Women, which has long supported policies that extend civil rights protections to all individuals, and which worked with coalition partners for decades to pass strong hate crimes law. But there is more work ahead.

It’s time for the new administration to insist that all police departments report hate crime data to the FBI by making federal grants dependent upon filing credible hate crime reports. State legislatures in the five states lacking hate crimes statutes should pass laws protecting people against bias and violence simply because of how they look or pray. And we should all extend our hearts and arms to communities impacted by hate. There is no single solution to combat hate crimes, but improved data collection and stronger laws would help minimize the number of data points on Muslim Advocates’ map in 2017. Collecting information about hate crimes has never been more important.