Hate Crimes in Florida appeared to have dropped in 2020. That's not necessarily true

  • In US
  • 2021-09-17 10:00:00Z
  • By Miami Herald

Miami's police chief says his agency has begun to review its reporting of hate crimes after discovering the department erroneously told the FBI that officers encountered zero such incidents in 2020 - a mistake that gave the appearance discriminatory attacks dropped in Florida last year.

In an interview, Chief Art Acevedo told the Miami Herald that officers patrolling Miami - the largest city in the country to report no hate crimes last year to the FBI, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center - actually documented seven incidents in 2020. Acevedo said the department recognized the mistake after a Herald reporter called to check the accuracy of hate crime data released by the FBI on Aug. 30.

"The fact that it's being reported is important," said Acevedo, who added that an "audit" of the department's hate crime reporting is underway. "But I think we just need to make sure that it's accurately reported from beginning to end."

Experts and activists say Miami PD's apparent blunder underscores the continued inability to accurately count hate crimes across the country. And without accurate data, they say it's difficult to identify trends and address an increase in hate crimes, which Congress earlier this year identified as "a serious national problem."

Nationally, the FBI's 2020 data showed an overall uptick in incidents. But, with Miami apparently under-reporting - and dozens of Florida police agencies choosing not to report hate crime data at all - Florida seemingly had a drop in hate crimes.

Police departments across the Sunshine State reported 111 hate crimes to the FBI in 2019. That figure decreased to 109 in 2020. But add in the seven incidents Acevedo says the city actually recorded and FBI data would reflect an increase in Florida hate crimes last year to 116.

A Herald review of hate crime incidents reported to the FBI in 2019 and 2020 also found that the percentage of Florida police departments reporting hate crime data dropped by 29%. The decrease was the second-largest among all states, behind only Pennsylvania.

"What you have there is a floor," Alexis Piquero, a criminologist and chair of University of Miami's sociology department, said of Florida's hate crimes numbers. "And we don't know what the ceiling is."

'The numbers do not speak for themselves'

At a time when documented hate crimes are on the rise in the U.S., Piquero and other criminologists believe that the decrease in reporting Florida agencies suggests a fundamental problem with the way that the FBI collects hate crime data. For starters, reporting is voluntary, meaning the FBI does not require every agency to submit data. Additionally, sharing the raw numbers without context doesn't necessarily paint a full picture of the environment in which hate crimes are occurring, they say.

"The numbers could change just because police are responding differently next year or the year after," Piquero said. "The numbers could change because there's more people in the population."

There's also the issue of what gets designated a hate crime. In South Florida, where Nazi graffiti and offensive tirades have recently made headlines, many police officers simply check off a box on an arrest report to denote bias in a reported incident. It's then up to prosecutors to decide whether or not to upgrade the original charge to a hate crime, something often influenced by whether or not they believe the case is winnable.

"Motivation is subjective," Piquero said, hinting at both officers' and prosecutors' ability to assess discrimination in a criminal case. "We're really relying on what law enforcement does in their investigation to determine if there was bias of any sort in part or in whole."

That inconsistency shows just how incomplete the FBI's annual hate crime statistics report truly is, says Michael Lieberman, a senior policy counsel with the SPLC. Still, he maintained that the FBI's analysis offers the most "comprehensive snapshot of hate violence in America" - though the data is only part of his main concern.

"The numbers do not speak for themselves," said Lieberman, who specializes in hate and extremism. "The numbers are a measure of accountability for law enforcement on how seriously they take the issue, how ready, willing and able they are to respond to a hate crime when it actually occurs."

Lieberman went on to single out Miami police. To not report a single act of hate violence in a city with close to 500,000 people seemed a bit odd, he noted. Miami, however, wasn't Florida's only city to tell the FBI there was nothing to report.

"St. Petersburg reported zero," Lieberman continued. "And so did Cape Coral and Tallahassee and Miramar and Pompano Beach and Miami Gardens and Davie. You bring that all together and you just have a lot of questions raised in Florida."

'It is hard to fix a problem without quantifiable data.'

Analysts have called for years for more accurate data on hate crimes in the U.S. As the Anti-Defamation League's Greg Ehrie wrote in a 2020 letter to the editor published in the New York Times: "It is hard to fix a problem without quantifiable data."

"With the best data in hand we can work to identify and counter the sources of hate crimes and provide better assistance to victims," wrote Ehrie, vice president for law enforcement and analysis at the Anti-Defamation League.

Since the FBI began generating formal hate crime reports in 1992, incidents rooted in anti-Black bias have been the most common in Florida. Roughly 34.5%, or 1,788 to be exact, of all Florida hate crimes have involved a Black victim, according to the FBI's statistics.

Of the estimated 561 hate crimes that have occurred in Miami-Dade since the recording process began, attacks on Black Americans (103) rank second only to that of Jewish Americans (163). The FBI data shows a total of 22 hate crimes occurred in Miami-Dade in 2020 - 29 if Miami's undercount is included.

The Florida Attorney General also keeps hate crime data, but those numbers don't match what the FBI released.

In Miami, narratives from the seven arrest reports police handed over to the Herald suggest various biases. Two alleged incidents were rooted in homophobia, another two contained anti-Black racism while one appeared to be anti-white. The biases of the last two were unclear.

A Miami police spokesman said all seven incidents were reported to the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, which makes the call whether to pursue enhanced charges under Florida's hate crime laws. A spokeswoman for State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle provided a list of 22 hate crimes prosecuted by the office last year but with the caveat that it may be incomplete.

The lack of reliable data and Miami's failure to report its hate crimes frustrated Valencia Gunder, a Miami activist and treasurer of the Black Collective.

"Somebody needs to be fired," said Gunder, adding later that reporting hate crimes to the FBI "should be 100% mandatory."

Gunder then pointed to the roughly $265.6 million budget that Miami police received in 2020.

"They get a lot of money from our tax dollars to quote-unquote protect us, to serve us, to do all of these things and then you see stuff like this," Gunder said, referring to the Miami's hate crime under-count. "Do only certain people deserve to be served and protected? Do our tax dollars not mean nothing? Or does policing only work for a certain group of people in the United States of America [and] the city of Miami?"


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