MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Each year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation release hate crime statistics to give the public crucial information about the safety of communities. But how reliable is the information in those reports?
WMC Action News 5 found the reports are flawed for a variety of reasons, from victims not coming forward to law enforcement miscounting or declining to report hate crime statistics to the FBI.
While hate crimes like the church massacre in Charleston, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh were major news stories, the United States Department of Justice said most hate crimes, 54 percent, are never reported to police.
About a quarter of victims believed that police would not want to be bothered or to get involved, would be ineffective or would cause more trouble for the victim.
One in five victims thought their victimization wasn't important enough to report. Even when these crimes are reported, there's no guarantee they'll make it into the FBI's annual hate crime statistics. Police aren't required to share their hate crime statistics with the FBI and many agencies decline to participate in the data collection program. Former FBI agent Cynthia Deitle, who now works for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said she has heard many reasons for law enforcement agencies not participating.
"I've heard everything from 'We don't have hate crimes here, there's no reason to report something that's not happening,'" said Deitle. "I've heard 'We don't have to, someone told me somewhere in our state, I don't think I have to.'"
According to the latest data, only 28 police agencies in Mississippi participate in the FBI data collection program. Almost 300 agencies in Arkansas participate as well, but because that state has no hate crime laws, critics say most victims there never come forward.
Tennessee does better. Nearly 400 police agencies in the Volunteer State share their numbers with the FBI, in large part because they already collect hate crime data for TBI, which issues its own annual report. But even that’s not foolproof. Shelby County Sheriff’s Office Chief Inspector Wink Downen admitted the department incorrectly reported hate crimes to TBI for several years.
"From our research we found that there were several officers who were incorrectly scoring a crime a hate crime when the facts and circumstances did not meet the standard for a hate crime," said Downen.
For example, incidents when the victim and suspect were of the same race were often counted as hate crimes.
"It was a training issue and we've since taken steps to do some quality control to make sure that doesn't happen in the future," said Downen.
Though the information was corrected, Downen says it's not reflected in TBI's hate crime reports, because like the FBI's statistics, it is considered "a snapshot in time."
TBI said while it cannot go back and change hate crime reports it has already issued, updated information is available online.