How faith groups help expose the 'hidden figure of crime'
Posted July 13
Bomb threats have been known to empty entire office buildings, shut down schools or bring dozens of police officers to a scene. But in some mosques around the country, voicemails threatening mass murder are ignored, not reported.
"I often hear, 'We got a voicemail. Someone said they're going to kill us all.' When I ask what they did, they say, 'We hit delete,'" said Corey Saylor, director of the department to monitor and combat Islamophobia for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.
The American Muslims he's meeting with don't have a death wish, he added. They've just become numb to the threat. If something horrible happens often enough, it starts feeling inevitable, like it's not worth fighting.
Part of Saylor's job is to convince people that contacting the police about alleged hate crimes benefits their entire community, not just those threatened.
"We’re trying to make sure that people understand why not ignoring what happened to them is helpful to other people," he said.
Saylor is part of a growing movement of religious people and organizations, including law enforcement, working to expose the "hidden figure of crime," a phrase that refers to an estimated 125,000 alleged bias-related incidents that police never hear about each year. These activists ease victims' fears about law enforcement and facilitate police reports, addressing the biggest roadblock to understanding why hate crimes happen: underreporting.
"If we don’t measure the problem, we can’t solve the problem," said Rajdeep Singh Jolly, interim managing director of programs for the Sikh Coalition.
Between 2011 and 2015, more than half of alleged hate crimes went unreported to law enforcement agencies, according to a new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In 4 in 10 of these cases, victims said they didn't involve the police because some other authority figure, like a school principal, was available, researchers noted. But in nearly 1 in 5 incidents (17.5 percent), the victim thought the police wouldn't want to be bothered or worried that involving law enforcement would cause more trouble.
The report "spurs conversation about why hate crimes aren’t being reported to police and about what steps to take to encourage reporting," said Lynn Langton, a statistician at the Bureau of Justice Statistics who co-authored the report. A conference sponsored by the Department of Justice last month focused on these questions.
The report is a valuable resource for the people of faith, like Saylor, who feel called to end underreporting. Their passion stems from the sense that religion is often at the center of hate-related incidents, such as bomb threats called in to Jewish community centers, a shooting at a historically black church and the vandalism of temples run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In recent years, faith groups have launched websites, smartphone apps and social media campaigns to ensure that acts of violence are investigated, capitalizing on community bonds formed through earlier projects.
"One of the things that's great about faith communities is that they can reach out to their own people and also provide services across denominational boundaries," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Risks of reporting
Bureau of Justice Statistics research confirms what faith groups hear from people on the ground. Discomfort with the police, confusion about hate crime laws and desensitization can all discourage people from reporting these incidents to law enforcement agencies, experts said.
"A lot of times people don’t know where to go or how to do it," said Madihha Ahussain, special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry for Muslim Advocates, an organization focused on legal advocacy and education.
A hate crime is defined by the FBI as "a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias." Examples include physical attacks provoked by someone's appearance and slurs spray-painted on a house of worship.
Victims of more violent attacks might instinctively call the police for help, especially if they need medical attention. But in other cases, such as when a mosque receives a bomb threat, staying quiet might be tempting, Jolly said.
"It's a sad choice that people are making," he said. "They're saying, 'I'm not hurt. I'll get over this. I don’t want to rock the boat or deal with paperwork or talk to the police.'"
People are especially leery of the police if they've had upsetting interactions with law enforcement officers in the past, Saylor said.
"In some areas, there is distrust between community members and law enforcement. Community members don’t want to attract any attention to themselves," he said.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, many Muslims felt that their privacy was violated by surveillance programs. They may worry that filing a hate crime report would lead to more unwelcome interference, Ahussain said.
"People don’t feel comfortable because of this history," she said. "Muslims have a complicated relationship with law enforcement."
The same is true for immigrants or people who may have family in the United States without proper documents, Ahussain added.
"They're concerned about further exposure," she said.
Det. Greg Wilking, a public information officer for the Salt Lake City Police Department, said law enforcement officers are aware of this fear and working to calm it.
"We're not looking at immigrant status or papers. We're going to take a crime report," he said. "People should never feel like they can't come to the police."
Faith groups' efforts to combat hate crime are inspired, in part, by the fact that religious practice sometimes puts people at risk.
More than 1 in 5 hate crimes (21.4 percent) were motivated by religion in 2015, making it the second-most common motivator for these crimes, according to the FBI. Race/ethnicity was the most common motivator, accounting for more than half (56.9 percent) of bias-related incidents.
Faith-based programs combatting hate are also driven by personal experiences as victims. When you've suffered through a hate crime or a bias-related incident yourself, you're aware of how these attacks can shake someone — or an entire community — to their core, Jolly said.
Jolly, who wears a turban as an expression of his Sikh faith, recalled standing in a restaurant about seven years ago waiting for a to-go order. An elderly, well-dressed man walked over to him, casually stating that "there are a lot of women who wear towels on their head when they get out of the shower."
An observation like that won't land someone in jail. But it's degrading, and it made Jolly feel uncomfortable in his own community.
"I still remember that, and I don't remember much else about that day in 2010," he said. Even seven years later, he's frustrated that he didn't tell somebody in the restaurant or even confront the man about his remarks.
"These are all teachable moments, but they're not teachable if you don't tell anybody about what happened," Jolly said.
That's the message the Sikh Coalition and other groups present to victims. They say that staying silent will not only stop someone from being punished, but also block an opportunity to prevent future violence.
"We say they don't deserve to be the target of something like that," Saylor said. "They deserve to have their government working on their behalf to protect them."
It's too soon to know if faith groups will make a meaningful dent in the underreporting problem. But their efforts to build bridges between hate crime victims and the police will be valuable no matter what, Jolly said.
"In an ideal world, you want maximum reporting. You want more dialogue, not less, between law enforcement and communities they serve," he said.
Underreporting by officials
Ensuring that all alleged hate crime victims contact the police for help would be an important step toward better understanding the scope of these incidents, experts said.
"Hate crimes are … precursors to violent crimes or are violent crimes. No person should have to fear being attacked for who they are, what they believe or how they worship," said Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a Department of Justice hate crimes summit on June 29.
However, higher rates of reporting wouldn't entirely solve the underreporting problem, since police agencies also contribute to it.
Two separate research teams at the federal level study hate crimes. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, which released the new report, draws on the National Crime Victimization Survey, tracking how many Americans have experienced a bias-related incident, regardless of whether the police were involved. It provides a victim's-eye view of alleged hate crimes.
"The victim has to not only say (a crime) was motivated by bias, but also that they had one of three types of evidence: hate language, hate symbols or police confirmation that it was a hate crime," Langton said.
The FBI's Hate Crimes Statistics Program is the other source of hate crime data. It compiles information from law enforcement agencies across the country, analyzing how many alleged hate crimes were actually reported and investigated.
However, local agencies are not required to participate, and there's some gray area in terms of what should be counted. Hate crime charges sometimes fall away during the investigation process because intent is difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute.
"A police officer who sees a crime wants to successfully prosecute the crime. Why the (criminal) did it might be tangential to getting a conviction," she said.
Adding a hate crime enhancement to the base charge, like assault or arson, might even put the underlying case at risk, said Levin, who previously served as a New York City police officer and has a law degree. Prosecutors consider whether to draw the jury's attention away from the act itself to reflect on motive.
"The question for prosecutors is, 'Is the introduction of this additional charge worth the risk and effort when they may have an otherwise open-and-shut case?'" he said.
For these reasons, the annual FBI report is widely seen as incomplete. In 2015, the last year for which data is available, "at least 85 police agencies in cities over 100,000 in population did not participate in the (FBI's hate crime) report, or affirmatively reported that they had zero hate crimes," according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The federal government implemented its two-pronged approach to hate crime data collection because of the value of this research. Policymakers need to know where alleged hate crimes happen in order to address them, Jolly said.
The data collection process "was designed to give us a sense of how widespread these issues are and to motivate all of us to do something about it," he said.
But underreporting by victims and law enforcement agencies is limiting this research's effectiveness, Berry said.
"In order for us to prevent these crimes, we have to understand them on a deeper level and encourage educational programs in areas where they’re occurring," she said.
Faith leaders and religious organizations use awareness campaigns and political activism to address both types of underreporting. They've harnessed the power of the internet to make it easier for people to contact the police.
For example, CAIR released a smartphone app last month to connect crime victims with experts who can help. "Making Democracy Work for Everyone," which is free to download, outlines how to respond to a variety of legal situations, including alleged hate crimes.
"Our role is to try to get maximum justice possible for somebody who was a target of an incident by helping with investigations. We can help provide additional info (to police) that might lead to hate crime charges," Saylor said, noting that CAIR has 30 attorneys on staff.
Similarly, the Sikh Coalition launched a "Report Hate" website last year, which enables members of the Sikh community to describe incidents in which they felt targeted because of their faith, Jolly said.
"What we’re trying to do is give people the opportunity to document incidents that aren’t necessarily actionable as hate crimes," he said. "It gives all of us a sense of the scope, scale, magnitude of these problems."
As groups create new tools to collect their own data on hate crimes, the Arab American Institute has led a campaign on Twitter to ensure that information shared with advocacy organizations is also reported to the police. The Arab American Institute is not a religious organization, but it serves many Muslims because of Islam's roots in the Middle East.
"We did a social media push … with the hashtag #ReportHate," Berry said.
Religious actors recently joined with other civil rights organizations and Justice Department professionals at the hate crimes summit. The event, titled "Identifying, Prosecuting and Preventing Hate Crimes: What Works?," focused, in large part, on understanding what drives underreporting.
Ahussain said one of her goals at the event was to emphasize the importance of coming out strong against hate crimes.
"We know when government takes something seriously and shows that they’re investigating these crimes, it could potentially deter future criminals," she said.
She and others who lead groups serving minority communities said they've been concerned with how the Trump administration's policies indirectly discourage reporting. For example, the ban on travelers from six Muslim-majority countries has heightened some Americans' concerns about calling the police, Ahussain said.
"When you're creating policies that essentially demonize people because of their faith, it creates an environment where people feel like" the government is out to get them, not to help them, she said.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Sessions created a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which includes a hate crimes subcommittee. Subcommittee members hosted the June 29 summit, collecting suggestions that will guide their work moving forward.
"We need to hear from you about what's happening in your communities, about the concerns and problems you face," Sessions said, noting that he's working with other Justice Department leaders to expand and improve training for federal, state and local prosecutors and improve data collection.
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