December 13, 2022
For several years now, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has made headlines with the annual release of the nation’s aggregated hate crimes data. The stats point out the alarming figure that a majority of religiously based hate crimes target the Jewish community – who make up less than 2% of the American population.
The shock is often compounded by the fact that numbers don't tell the whole story because of ongoing and continuous underreporting. AJC’s 2021 State of Antisemitism in America report found that 79% of American Jews targeted by an antisemitic remark in the last 12 months did not report it. Even if they did, many law enforcement agencies neglect to offer hate crimes data to the FBI because submitting hate crime data to the FBI is voluntary.
Holly Huffnagle, AJC’s U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism, said the 2021 report does not accurately depict the reality on the ground for American Jews.
“We know antisemitism is increasing. We know this from American Jews and we know it from data collection: 2021 was an all-time high for antisemitic incidents,” Huffnagle said. “Yet when one looks at the FBI Report for 2021, that increase isn’t captured. What’s worrying about this report is that Americans might think antisemitism went down between 2020 and 2021, when the opposite happened. We rely on the FBI data so if the numbers are incomplete it can actually do a disservice to our work, which is why we are raising awareness to correct the problem.”
Here are three takeaways from the release of this year’s report that explain the numbers and what needs to happen to better protect America’s vulnerable populations – not just the Jewish community.
Crimes That Made Headlines Are Not Reflected in FBI Report
While the underreporting of hate crimes has been an endemic issue for years, this year’s FBI data is more deeply flawed because approximately 4,000 of the nation’s more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies did not complete the mandatory transition from a nearly century-old national crime data collection program called the Summary Reporting System (SRS), a monthly survey of crimes from local law enforcement.
As of 2021, all state and local law enforcement agencies were mandated to use the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which serves as a centralized, uniform database to collect data on crimes including more details of those crimes such as property involved, information about victims and offenders, and the relationships between them. Since 2015, law enforcement agencies nationwide have received over $160 million in federal funding to help with the transition to NIBRS. But many did not meet the March 14, 2022 deadline for entering data in the right system. In fact, 65% of local agencies reported hate crimes in 2021 vs. 93% in 2020.
Even agencies in major metropolitan cities such as New York and Los Angeles that did collect hate crime data either did not, or were not properly trained to, submit their data into NIBRS, meaning that their crime statistics did not show in the FBI's annual report. That deficiency makes it impossible to track whether progress has been made or whether hate crimes targeting Jews is increasing.
That’s particularly important in cities such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco where attacks on Jews in 2021 during the conflict between Israel and Gaza-based terrorist groups made national headlines but were not included in the FBI’s report.
That means the annual data release did not document as a hate crime an attack on diners outside a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles where the suspects asked: “Who is Jewish?” and “Death to Jews” before pelting diners with glass bottles and punching and kicking them.
It also means the FBI report excluded an assault on a 29-year-old Jewish man wearing a yarmulke who was jumped, pepper-sprayed, and beaten in the middle of Times Square while his attackers called him a “dirty, filthy Jew." One of the attackers recently pleaded guilty to a federal hate crimes conspiracy charge, which included another attack against a man wearing a Star of David necklace.
Especially now, as antisemitism and hate makes an almost daily appearance in news headlines, in order to effectively address rising hate crimes, it is essential that we have a clear understanding of the extent of the problem.
Zero Hate Crimes Is Misleading
While the FBI is required by law to issue an annual report of hate crimes, law enforcement agencies voluntarily offer information from their jurisdictions, meaning the legally mandated report is incomplete.
Unfortunately, the number of participating agencies has decreased over time. The 2021 report is particularly shocking as twenty-two percent fewer law enforcement agencies across the country submitted data. But failing to submit data is one thing. Submitting misleading data is another.
While Chicago (the third largest city in the U.S.), Scottsdale, Des Moines, Little Rock, and Hartford did transition to the NIBRS system for 2021, they and 30 other major cities reported zero hate crimes. That means, when a vandal in May 2021 spray-painted the caricature of a Jewish man with horns and the words “Free Palestine” just steps away from a synagogue in Chicago, it was not reflected in the FBI's report. Likewise, two men in Des Moines who in April 2021 were charged with assaulting a Black man while yelling racial slurs were left out of the FBI report as well.
Meanwhile, in Little Rock, city officials in 2020 adopted a hate crimes ordinance in the absence of a state hate crimes statute to adequately prosecute offenders who target someone based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected categories. It’s unclear if Little Rock's figure of zero indicates no hate crimes occurred or law enforcement just didn’t apply the ordinance.
Arkansas, home to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the New Aryan Empire, and at least a dozen other extremist groups, is one of only three states without a hate crime law on the books.
A Path Forward
The year 2021 was a transition year for the annual FBI Hate Crimes Statistics Report, and it’s imperative that law enforcement agencies that did not participate do so next year by making the transition to NIBRS.
The good news is that resources exist to help with this transition and aid hate crimes data collection and reporting. In May 2021, the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, which, along with other Department of Justice resources, funds hate crimes bias training and hotlines to improve hate crimes reporting, was signed into law.
Though few local law enforcement agencies have yet taken advantage of the opportunity, AJC is asking Congress to reach out to law enforcement agencies in their state that are not accurately reporting to the FBI to understand what happened and what’s still needed to ensure they submit data for 2022 and beyond. AJC is also engaging state and local agencies on the ground to hasten a speedy transition to the NIBRS system.
Community roundtables with elected officials, law enforcement agencies, and community stakeholders can help agencies that do not report understand how insufficient data hampers progress in countering hate in their area and around the country. It also can lead these agencies to resources that are available.
Further, while we may not have a complete view of what the state of hate is in America, efforts to protect vulnerable communities continue. To protect communities that are susceptible to hate crimes, in 2020, Congress increased funding for the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program by 50 percent to $180 million. These grants are vital to train staff and secure and protect minority-affiliated institutions and houses of worship.
AJC will continue to work with the FBI, including presenting to the Bureau the findings of its annual State of Antisemitism in America report and Translate Hate to aid understanding of contemporary antisemitism, including its conspiratorial nature, because crimes against Jews don’t always fit the conventional definition of what is a hate crime.
“We appreciate the FBI’s efforts collecting and reporting on hate crimes, and for the work the bureau does every day to keep Americans safe,” AJC CEO Ted Deutch said. “We look forward to working with the FBI and law enforcement agencies across the United States to secure reliable hate crimes data in the future.”
AJC also created a Call to Action Against Antisemitism in America that provides U.S. leadership in all sectors of society with the knowledge and tools to understand, respond to, and prevent antisemitism. It includes a series of specific recommendations for law enforcement, local and state governments, Congress, and the Executive Branch.
In the Call to Action, AJC suggested the White House create a national interagency action plan to address antisemitism, which the White House announced just this week. This whole-of-government approach is well positioned to tackle the issue of underreporting of hate crimes. AJC urges the group to prioritize an examination of how the U.S. understands, reports, and acts to prevent antisemitic hate crimes.