The Justice Department committed Monday to doing a better job of collecting data on hate crimes, moving in the wake of Saturday’s mass shooting that left 11 people dead at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said it’s clear many hate crimes are going unnoticed at the national level after reviewing data from 2016, when 88 percent of law enforcement agencies that report hate crimes to the FBI said they had zero such crimes that year.
The department created a new “one-stop portal” website for local law enforcement and the public to report hate crimes to federal officials. It also offers resources such as training materials, research reports and statistics to help people combat hate crimes.
“Simply because hate crimes are not reported does not mean they are not happening,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “Together we can find ways to improve reporting of hate crimes that will allow us to more effectively target our resources to where they are most needed.”
Some advocacy groups cheered the move as long overdue, saying they had been pushing for such a website for years.
Experts, though, said that while more data can be helpful, it isn’t an effective tool against the type of violence that occurred Saturday when a gunman barged into Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Police have charged Robert Bowers, who appears to have a history of using anti-Semitic rhetoric on social media and allegedly told a police officer who took him into custody that he wanted to “kill all the Jews.”
“The idea of identifying hate mongers is not a bad idea, but it certainly is not going to do anything to stop the most serious cases like the high-profile, horrendous attacks we sometimes see in this country,” said Jack Levin, who specializes in hate crime research at Northeastern University. “And certainly not going to happen because of a website.”
James Jacobs, who teaches criminal law at New York University, worried that the data collected and provided through the portal would end up politicizing hate crime statistics.
“Instead of enhancing solidarity it just becomes a score card of which groups are most victimized,” he said.
Mr. Rosenstein said the website and a University of New Hampshire study of local law agencies’ reporting practices will help identify successful strategies to derail violence before it occurs.
“The information generated should help us to develop more strategic and targeted approaches to prevent hate crimes,” he said.
But Mr. Levin said it’s tough to connect more reports on destroyed tombstones at Jewish cemeteries or spray-painted swastikas on a synagogue with efforts to deter someone determined to carry out the carnage like what occurred in Pittsburgh.
Hate-crime reporting has been notoriously unreliable since the FBI began tracking the crimes in 1996.
The Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey says roughly 250,000 hate crimes occur in the U.S. annually, but the FBI’s 2016 hate crime report says that number is about 6,000.
Local law enforcement is not required to report hate crime statistics to federal authorities, further undercutting the value of the federal numbers.
One of the issues, Mr. Levin said, is that people are often unsure what constitutes a hate crime.
They are generally prejudice-motivated attacks on someone because of sex, ethnicity, disability, language, religion, nationality or sexual orientation, though there’s still a lot of gray area.
For example, a North Carolina man murdered three Muslims near the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2015. Authorities insist the victims were murdered over a parking space, but families of the slain men insisted the crime was about their religion.
On Capitol Hill, three House Democrats called Monday for hearings into hate crimes and domestic terrorism.
Reps. Jerrold Nadler of New York, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Steve Cohen of Tennessee want the House Judiciary Committee to discuss more than just the Pittsburgh murders.
They said other crimes worthy of study are a Kentucky man who killed two black individuals in a supermarket last week after being denied entry into a predominately black church, and Cesar Altieri Sayoc, the man accused of sending pipe bombs to critics of President Trump.
“It falls to us to begin the hard work of answering the questions left in the wake of this violence,” the Democrats wrote.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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