According to a recent FBI report from the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, 2020 was the worst year for hate crimes in the U.S. since 2008. The agency reported 7,759 hate crimes last year, and roughly 20 percent of the victims were targeted for their sexual orientation, compared to about 17 percent in the previous year.
It was also one of the deadliest years ever for transgender people, who now account for one out of every 1,000 murders in the U.S. Texas saw 18 trans murders, which was second only to Florida’s 20 trans murders. There was also an increase in hate crimes against Asian American Pacific Islanders, and more Black people were the victims of police brutality.
But that may not even be the entire picture. “Because the UCR Program is voluntary, it’s hard to get the whole picture,” says Torrence White, a Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) in Houston’s FBI office. “Sometimes an assault may just be reported as an assault, and not a hate crime.”
In an effort to combat this, the FBI has launched a nationwide initiative to encourage the public to report allegations of hate crime. At a news conference held at the FBI Houston field office, leaders of the organization launched the Stop the Hate, Be Heard campaign.
“The FBI’s mission is to protect everyone in our community regardless of actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability,” said Special Agent Mark N. Webster. “As defenders of the United States Constitution, in one of the most diverse cities in this nation, FBI Houston is creating awareness about the strength that comes from our differences while ensuring that those who violate federal hate crime laws face federal charges.”
The U.S. has a complex patchwork of state and federal hate-crime laws, which leads to inconsistent law-enforcement training and reporting on the scope of the problem, according to the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), an organization that tracks the progress of pro-LGBTQ policies nationwide.
Only around half of U.S. states require law enforcement to collect and analyze hate-crime data, while four states and Washington, DC track the data but aren’t required to report it, MAP found.
The FBI has been tracking and investigating hate crimes since Congress passed the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 in an effort to provide information to local law enforcement and the media, and to let victims of hate crimes know they are not alone. Hate-crime bias categories now include both sexual orientation and gender identity.
“The 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act gave us more leeway and the ability to protect people’s civil rights from hate crimes, as well as more training for law enforcement and education for the public,” says Special Agent White. He also notes that the UCR is reporting more hate crimes because people are more open about their sexual orientation today, and are more willing to come forward.
The FBI, for its part, is also becoming more inclusive, as evidenced by the Pride flag that flew at its headquarters during June Pride Month this year.
“Hate crimes are the top priority within the FBI’s civil-rights program, due to the devastating impact these types of crimes have on communities. One act can terrorize entire communities and groups of people,” says FBI Associate Deputy Director Jeffrey Sallet. During June Pride Month, Sallet announced the nationwide effort to build public awareness of hate crimes and encourage reporting to law enforcement. “There’s simply no place in this country for hate and intolerance. We in the FBI stand ready to use all the tools at our disposal to reduce the threat of hate crimes and fulfill our mission to protect every American.”
The FBI is the lead investigative agency for criminal violations of federal civil-rights statutes. The Bureau works closely with its local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners in many of these cases, even when federal charges are not pursued. The FBI also works to detect and prevent incidents through law enforcement training, public outreach, and partnerships with community groups.
The FBI defines a hate crime as “a criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” But to prove a hate crime, officials must prove that the crime was motivated by that bias. Because witnesses are often hesitant to come forward, the Bureau has made its new public campaign a priority this year, according to White. “We are investing a lot of resources to reach out with the Stop the Hate, Be Heard campaign.”
For the LGBTQ community, that means seeing ads and getting involved in the FBI’s work with local LGBTQ organizations on educational programs.
“We still need to educate the community and our own people,” White emphasizes. “Everyone needs to know that we are here, and that they can bring these crimes to our attention.”
If you believe you have been a victim of (or a witness to) a hate crime, report it to the FBI by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI or submitting a tip at tips.fbi.gov. You may remain anonymous.
This article appears in the October 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.