Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tip of the iceberg

One of the top news stories nationally in the last week concerned the FBI’s release of the 2006 hate crime statistics. The FBI collects data regarding criminal offenses that are motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity/national origin, or disability. Hate crimes that are reported to it by law enforcement agencies that participate in the Uniform Crime Report. The definitions and methodology for hate crime reporting are available on the FBI’s excellent hate crime web site.

The 2006 report showed an increase of about 8% in the number of hate crimes that participating agencies reported to the FBI. The national media jumped on this story, as did some public figures. The tone of many of the stories concerned the alarming increase. Many local news media outlets did stories on their own city’s hate crime stats.

Curiously, none of the media here in Lincoln came looking for a local angle on this national story. If they had, I suspect the media would have been perplexed by what they found. Lincoln has about 14% of Nebraska’s population, but in 2006 we accounted for almost two-thirds (64%) of the hate crimes in Nebraska—36 of the State’s 56 offenses. The Lincoln Police Department reported six times the number of hate crimes Omaha (6) reported. We also topped St. Louis (11), Denver (15), and Atlanta (11), among many other cities way over our size and much more diverse. Chicago, with roughly 12 times our population, only had one more hate crime (37) than Lincoln. Here’s a typical example of a Lincoln hate crime (click to enlarge--and I gently edited some personal information from this report to protect the victim’s identity):

Now if anyone really believes that Lincoln had more hate crimes than Atlanta, Denver, Omaha, St. Louis, and most other cities way over our population--or that there were only 7,722 hate crimes in the United States last year--you really need to get a grip on reality. What we have here, folks, is a failure to report. Some cities, like Kearney, Nebraska (7) , Shawnee, Kansas (9), and St. Cloud, Minnesota (20) are obviously doing a good job of officially recording hate crimes, while others are not. Syndicated columnist Clarence Page at the Chicago Tribune seems to be one of the few commentators to recognize the obvious in these data.

Reported hate crime is the tip of the iceberg. Some police department’s don’t participate in the reporting system at all; many do so haphazardly; and (the biggest source of under reporting) many victims don’t report hate crimes to the police. At this stage, a large increase in reported hate crime ought to cause citizens to think: “Good. I’m glad more people are willing to report, and that our police are quick to recognize and record hate crimes.” Here’s what needs to happen in order to improve hate crime reporting:
  1. Citizens need to have enough faith and confidence in the police that they are willing to report these disturbing, hateful crimes.
  2. Police agencies need to participate in the FBI's hate crime reporting program.
  3. Police agencies need to have good training, policies and reporting processes in place so that crimes motivated by racial, ethnic, and religious animus, and those targeting victims because of their sexual orientation or nationality are both recognized and recorded as hate crimes.
  4. Individual police officers need to be encouraged to record crimes as hate crimes when hate and bias appear to be involved. The original assigned officer, in consultation with the victim, is usually in the best position to make this determination, and he or she should not be discouraged from doing so, nor presented with a unwieldy penalty form.

That’s what we’ve done in Lincoln. We have encouraged officers to make a common sense call, and provided a fairly easy mechanism for recording additional hate crime information needed for reporting. It just got easier late last year, when we automated our police incident report. Now, rather than a short supplemental form, it’s just a few drop-downs on a web form. The even simpler reporting process is going to result in even more hate crimes being reported (we’ve already recorded 37 through September). I can’t wait to see how this increase gets misinterpreted.

Hate crimes are despicable. They are happening with much, much greater frequency than the FBI report suggests. The FBI is well aware of this, and their web site is filled with such warnings and disclaimers, largely ignored. We have no clear idea how often these crimes occur, but we ought to be committed to improving reporting dramatically, and also doing all we can to combat the kind of ignorance and bigotry that spawns these crimes.


Anonymous said...

As you've mentioned here before, other than murder and auto theft (and business robbery, if it were broken out of all robberies, which it usually isn't), you can't assume that any crime is always reported. When there's no corpse, or no insurance claim to file for reimbursement of losses (the insurance companies require police reports before they'll cut a check), there are a lot of things that keep crimes from being reported. If we can safely assume that nearly all types of the other crimes are under-reported to varying degrees, we can ask why, but first we can try to quantify just how under-reported that type of crime is.

Let's look at the reporting thing another way. Only a sliver of people are well-acquainted with both Lincoln and Chicago, but a larger slice are familiar with both Lincoln and Omaha. Line up the usual UCR stats for the two cities side-by-side. We know we can trust the murder and auto theft rates the most, and we see that Omaha's murder rate is over 4x ours and their auto theft rate is over 3x ours. We can assume that those rate disparities are accurate. However, common sense tells us that a city with 4x our murder rate does not have the same forcible rape rate as ours, no matter what the number says!

Our gut instinct tells us that forcible rape in Omaha is significantly under-reported, in comparison to Lincoln. The puzzler is hanging a number on that disparity, and that's a problem set that's way above my pay grade.

Tom Casady said...

Well put, 2:14. I'm surprised at the level of your knowledge about the vagaries of comparative police statistics. You've posted similar comments before, and whether you're in the police business or not, it's apparent you have an unusually good grasp of this complex issue.

Come to think of it, this was the subject of my very first blog post. Hard to believe it's been 10 months since I started this project.

Anonymous said...

I do like this blog, and of course the LPD incident summaries. Some agencies, like UNLPD, also have incident summaries (with the feature of clearance status), but the only thing I've seen that's even somewhat similar to your blog posts is over in Colorado, at Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden's site.

When a civilian wants to know what's going on in Lincoln with crime, they should come to this blog and to the LPD site for incident summaries and CrimeView, and only go to the fishwrap as an afterthought.

It's easy to see the simiilarities between this kind of reporting-rate puzzle and something like an engineering problem. You need to nail down the relevant numbers, in order to know where you actually stand, before you run off in eight different directions, spending money like mad and hoping to stumble over an answer.

To oversimplify, is your speedometer corrrectly set up for your tire diameter?

Anonymous said...

Maybe other cities report stats differently than Lincoln does.
Maybe they don't report possible hate crimes unless there's overwhelming evidence that it happened.