Hate crimes down in state, but what does it mean?

Hate crimes down in state, but what does it mean?

The good news about the recently released annual FBI Hate Crimes Statistics Act report is that the numbers show a 20 percent decrease from the previous year. The bad news: Since the vast majority of such crimes go unreported as much due to ignorance than fear of reprisal, no one’s really sure what those numbers mean.

“While we’re very encouraged by the numbers — and 20 percent is a significant decrease — we’re wondering why is the data declining when the number of participating agencies is growing?” asked Jeremy Bannett, assistant regional director for the Philadelphia office of the Anti-Defamation League. “This year, we had 1,457 agencies participating in the study; 99 percent affirmatively reported zero hate crimes. It raises questions.”

And unless people become willing to report incidents when they believe a hate crime has been committed, it will be next to impossible finding the answers.

“The definition of a hate crime is when a perpetrator targets a person or institution because of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identification or disability,” said Bannett, who has served in his current position for four years. “Today in America, one hate crime is committed every 90 minutes. Hate crimes intimidate not only their victims, they can make an entire community feel isolated, vulnerable and unprotected by the law.”

According to the FBI report, only 50 hate crimes were committed throughout the state of Pennsylvania in 2014, down from 64 reported in 2013. As encouraging as that sounds, if Bannett’s unofficial estimate of crime frequency is anywhere close to being accurate, the numbers simply don’t add up.

“People need to know if something happens, they should call the ADL,” said Anita Gray, ADL regional director for Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. “If they don’t, the crime goes unreported. If they don’t call, we don’t know about it. We’re a resource that can help them. But a lot of people don’t know the ADL exists. We’re a 100-year-old organization that combats anti-Semitism and seeks fair treatment for all. But if people don’t know that, they won’t call.”

In conjunction with news of the report, the ADL is promoting legislation that will ensure all 50 states have laws against hate crimes.  Currently, all states except Indiana, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia and Wyoming have such laws. Of the first group, only 36 states have what are considered comprehensive hate-crime laws that include crimes involving sexual orientation, gender identity, sex or disability.

Pennsylvania is not among those 36, which the ADL is attempting to change through its new campaign, 50 States Against Hate. “We’re creating a national and local coalition of civil rights and other organizations,” said Bannett. “We want to encourage state legislate to have laws and make sure everyone is protected. Mostly, we want people in the community to know hate is not an option. But we can’t support it if we don’t know about it.”

Jon Marks is a reporter for the Jewish Exponent, where this article first appeared.