Florida cities fail to report hate crimes

In 2014, women mourned the lives lost two years earlier in the massacre at a Sikh temple in in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
In 2014, women mourned the lives lost two years earlier in the massacre at a Sikh temple in in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Getty

August 5th is the fifth anniversary of one of the deadliest hate crimes in modern history: a neo-Nazi attack on a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. As Sikh Americans remember that tragic day, the threat of hate crimes has not subsided, and neither has the need for vigilance. In this context, Florida police agencies must stop giving short shrift to hate-crime data collection.

The Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 requires the Justice Department to compile hate crime data based on voluntary reports from police agencies nationwide. Just as unemployment figures and gross domestic product allow policymakers to evaluate economic health and make data-driven policy decisions, hate crime data help police and policymakers develop stronger crime prevention strategies.

For example, when police departments know that religious minorities or LGBTQ communities experience high rates of hate crime, they can devote resources to investigating and aggressively prosecuting these crimes to deter them from happening again. Similarly, policymakers can proactively use hate crime data to design bias prevention programs in public schools.

Despite the clear benefits of hate crime reporting, Florida cities are overrepresented among large American cities that did not bother to report hate crimes in 2015.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa, Orlando, and St. Petersburg all made the list, along with Hialeah, Fort Lauderdale, Cape Coral, Hollywood, Pompano Beach, Lakeland, and Davie. From 2012 to 2014, Miami and Tampa affirmatively reported zero hate crimes — a claim that is statistically dubious for cities of their size.

By contrast, the Florida attorney general’s 2015 report on hate crimes counted 102 hate crimes in Florida in 2015, including 41 assaults and three murders. These figures from participating agencies are likely the tip of the iceberg. It is far-fetched to assume that hate crimes in Florida only occur in cities that report them.

Far from being a theoretical concern, data collection ensures that hate crime victims are not forgotten. The policy response to the Oak Creek massacre is a case in point.

The FBI maintains detailed statistics on hate crimes against faith groups, but at the time of the Oak Creek tragedy, an “anti-Sikh” category was missing from federal reporting forms. Despite persistent bias-motivated attacks against Sikhs in the post-9/11 environment, there was no official record of these crimes and no way of documenting them.

This irony was not lost on Harpreet Singh Saini, whose mother was murdered at the Oak Creek gurdwara. In testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee after the shooting, Saini poignantly asked policymakers to give his late mother “the dignity of being a statistic.” Within months, the FBI added seven new categories to its hate crime tracking system, including one for anti-Sikh hate crimes. These enhancements are an important acknowledgment by the government that Americans are targeted because of hate.

Opponents of data collection might balk at the recognition of hate crimes as distinct offenses, arguing that the government should not punish bias crimes more severely than other crimes. This argument ignores the fact that the Hate Crime Statistics Act was enacted with bipartisan support and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. Liberals and conservatives alike can agree on the need to reduce violence, and understanding the root causes of violence is one of the keys to preventing it.

The Florida law enforcement community should pledge to give all hate crime victims the dignity of recognition by reporting hate crimes. Florida lawmakers should give police agencies resources and incentives to do so. The biggest incentive of all is keeping our communities safe.

Rajdeep Singh Jolly is interim managing director of programs of the Sikh Coalition, a national civil rights organization. A graduate of the University of Miami, he led a successful multi-year campaign to expand federal hate crime tracking.