Statistics on hate crimes are sparse
Communities chart few, if any, bias offenses
Hundreds of cities and towns in Massachusetts, including some of the state’s most diverse, report few or no hate crimes, statistics that civil rights advocates say are implausible and troubling.
Massachusetts ranked ninth highest in the country in the number of hate crimes reported last year, according to FBI statistics. But of the state’s 351 cities and towns, 211 reported no hate crimes; 71 reported only 1 to 7 hate crimes per 100,000 residents, according to the 2009 FBI Uniform Crime Report, the most recent data available. The remaining 69 Massachusetts communities did not submit reports.
Civil rights advocates said such figures suggest that police are not properly investigating hate crimes, or the advocates worry that some agencies may be underreporting bias crimes to protect the reputation of their communities.
“We take no comfort in low numbers, because it just means that the police are not detecting the problem,’’ said Donald Gorton III, head of the Anti-Violence Project of Massachusetts, which focuses on hate crimes against gays, lesbians, and transgender people. “Often, the ostrich in the sand describes the way they deal with hate.’’
Most police departments are eager to tout crime statistics when the numbers are low, but a high number of hate crime reports shows that a department takes such complaints seriously and that a community has confidence in its police force, said Derrek L. Shulman, New England regional director for the Anti-Defamation League.
It is disconcerting, he said, to hear of large, diverse cities that reported one or two hate crimes.
“There could be a reluctance on the part of some communities to report hate crime data for fear of drawing attention to a dark cloud in their communities,’’ he said. “I’m not in a position to confirm that . . . but it’s plausible.’’
Police officials whose departments reported low numbers defended their record, saying they treat hate crimes aggressively. They point to possible factors behind the statistics, including reluctance of victims to come forward, tolerance in their communities, and the savviness of some criminals who hide their motivation for attacks because they know hate crimes carry more severe penalties.
In Framingham, a racially diverse town of 65,000, police reported one hate crime last year, a case of sexual assault and domestic violence against a Jewish victim, said Police Chief Steven Carl.
He said that Framingham residents are tolerant of the town’s diversity and that the low number of reports does not surprise him. “The town has a philosophy that we don’t tolerate hate crimes,’’ Carl said.
A hate crime is a criminal act against someone motivated by the victim’s religion, race, sexual identity, or disability. When a victim of an attack says bias was involved, police must investigate the allegation and determine whether hate based on those criteria was the motivation.
Hate crimes are distinguished from other assaults or acts of vandalism because they send a message to an entire group, said Jack McDevitt, associate dean at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.
“Its impact on the community is greater than almost any kind of crime,’’ he said. “It sends a message to everyone in that victim’s group that we don’t want you here.’’
The number of hate crimes reported in Massachusetts has steadily declined since 1996, when 523 incidents were reported, to last year when 382 were reported, according to the FBI, which does not make reporting hate crimes mandatory. Boston, the largest city and the only one with a hate crimes unit, reported 134 hate crimes last year.
Specialists said the declines in reporting occurred as police became cash-strapped and more focused on other crimes, such as cybercrime, identity theft, and gang feuds. In 2002, Governor Mitt Romney dissolved the Massachusetts Governor’s Task Force on Hate Crimes, which was cochaired by Gorton and was focused on studying hate crime trends and making sure police were trained to detect hate crimes.
And, yet, McDevitt said, “there isn’t a decrease in hate crimes. And there is not a decrease in the severity of these crimes.’’
Advocates for minority groups, such as immigrants and gays and lesbians, agree.
Franklin Soults, spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the agency often hears complaints from immigrants who have been assaulted because of their race and people who have received death threats after defending immigrants in the media.
“It’s not something that I think has gotten any easier in the past few years,’’ he said. “The language and the feelings have gotten much more intolerant; there is no question about that.’’
Attorney General Martha Coakley said the low reporting numbers reflect diminishing budgets at police departments, which are understaffed and have less time to investigate hate crimes.
She said officers need more training and must reach out more to minority groups to avoid sending the message that police take hate crimes less seriously than other offenses.
“If we’re really serious about knowing the extent of the problem, addressing it, and enforcing it, we need good data,’’ Coakley said. “If you don’t feel that you’re going to get a response from a busy police officer, you’re inclined to move on. You’re not going to report it.’’
In Lynn, a city of more than 91,000 that reported one hate crime, police Lieutenant William Sharpe said officials regularly meet with minority groups to encourage more reporting.
“All forms of crimes are afflicted by the same phenomenon, and that’s underreporting,’’ said Sharpe, whose department investigated the brutal beating of a Guatemalan immigrant in 2009. “I don’t think it’s a lack of effort on our part.’’
Corinn Williams, executive director of the Community Economic Development Center of Southeastern Massachusetts, said she often hears from Guatemalans in New Bedford who tell her they were mugged or assaulted because of their race.
“I do know they do feel targeted as a group,’’ she said.
Yet New Bedford, which has a population of 93,000, reported only three hate crimes last year.
Lieutenant Jeffrey Silva, spokesman and hate crimes liaison for the New Bedford Police Department, said some perpetrators may have learned to hide racist sentiments while committing crimes, so they can avoid more serious charges if they are caught.
“Hate and prejudice are insidious things,’’ he said. “Very few people wear [them] on their sleeves.’’
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.