Last month, a Somali man riding a Metro Transit bus was beaten for not speaking English. A Coon Rapids middle school student had her hijab yanked off by a classmate. Vicious racist graffiti turned up in a girls’ high school restroom in Maple Grove.
Yet it’s unclear if any of these events will ever be reported by Minnesota authorities to the FBI’s national database of hate crimes.
A Star Tribune analysis of FBI data for the last 10 years shows that, depending on the year, one-fourth to three-fourths of Minnesota’s 441 law enforcement agencies fail to file annual hate-crime reports with the state agency that tracks them. From 2006 to 2015, the state recorded an average of 130 bias incidents each year, with 30 to 50 local agencies reporting cases. But the number of agencies that participate in the system at all varied widely, from a high of 321 in 2007 to just 87 two years later.
FBI officials say the annual tally is just one of many tools they use, and that data gaps don’t stop them from fighting bias crimes. But the wide gaps in reporting raise questions about the nation’s ability to track and prevent hate crimes, legal analysts say, at a time of heightened concern about bias.
“It’s a real problem across the country — not just in Minnesota,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which compiles its own hate-crimes tally. “Some agencies miss deadlines, some do not report. We get all these inaccuracies introduced to the data.”
Local advocates agree.
“This easily can become a cascading issue,” said Jaylani Hussein, who directs Minnesota’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “If I take a step back and look right now, there are a number of incidents being unreported all over the place.”
The state agency that collects data from police says it has no reason to believe any agencies are deliberately failing to report bias incidents. The FBI doesn’t require states to file reports for its annual total, but it recommends that reports be submitted even by agencies listing zero hate crimes, to encourage consistent reporting.
Both advocates and authorities, however, say the numbers still show important trends: The FBI confirmed last month that reported hate crimes against Muslims climbed 67 percent nationwide in 2015, reaching their highest level nationally since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
“Data is what it is — it’s imprecise,” said Dan Genck, FBI supervisory special agent for the agency’s civil rights division in Minneapolis. “We use that as one piece for looking at the whole picture: What does the data say? What do people anecdotally say? What are people at community meetings saying?”
Hate-crime reporting nationally has taken on heightened importance in the aftermath of a polarizing election season.
The Southern Poverty Law Center counted almost 900 reports of harassment or intimidation in the 10 days after Donald Trump’s election. Minnesota ranked ninth among the states with 34 cases, including vandalism at a Minneapolis mosque and a Coon Rapids middle school student pulling a classmate’s hijab.
“This is an extremely unusual spike and it came immediately after the election and has decreased every day since then,” Potok said.
Dispute over motivation
Minnesota law requires local authorities to report any bias incidents to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) each month. Some agencies may fail to participate because they forget to submit a report or choose not to submit information if they didn’t investigate any bias-motivated incidents, a BCA spokesperson said.
But a review of recent incidents shows that there can also be stark differences of opinion about what constitutes a hate crime.
Jim Skelly, an Anoka-Hennepin School District spokesman, said Northdale Middle School staff determined that the Nov. 11 hijab pulling was “in no way motivated by racial or cultural bias.” But Skelly said a student data practices policy prohibits the district from revealing more about the motivation in that confrontation.
Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton said investigators last month found no signs that a hate crime was committed when a fifth-grade student at Afton-Lakeland Elementary School threatened to shoot a Muslim third-grader and then, reportedly, brought a replica firearm on a bus. It was more a case of “two kids not getting along with each other,” he said. “One child took it way too far.”
At CAIR, Hussein said such events deserve greater scrutiny.
“Pulling a hijab is not the same as calling someone a name,” Hussein said. “That’s putting hands on somebody. That’s an assault.”
The discrepancy between publicly voiced concerns and what turns up in official tallies is not new in Minnesota.
In 2013, Owatonna police investigated a series of vandalism incidents at a local mosque after reports that some residents had protested the group’s presence in the city of 24,294.
But police found “no physical evidence” to suggest that the offenders — who were not identified — were motivated by bias, Owatonna Police Capt. Eric Rethemeier said in an e-mail.
A detective met with mosque officials to discuss improving street lighting options and bolstering surveillance, Rethemeier said. But the vandalism was not reported to the BCA as bias-motivated. Owatonna Police did not participate in any reporting to the BCA from 2009-13.
There is little ambiguity about the recent arrest of a 56-year-old black man who is accused of punching a fellow bus passenger for speaking Somali. Cornell White is now in jail on gross misdemeanor charges including assault “motivated by bias.”
But the attack hasn’t been reported yet to the BCA. And Metro Transit Police, the agency that arrested White, is the largest police department in Minnesota to not appear in the FBI’s hate-crime database in the past decade. A spokesperson said Friday that is because its crimes are reported “through the jurisdiction where the incident occurred,” a practice approved by the BCA to prevent “double counting.”
A spokesman said Friday he was awaiting department clarification on how it investigates and reports bias offenses.
The FBI’s figures — ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 offenses reported each year — are widely thought to reflect only a sliver of the total number of hate crimes committed nationwide. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a separate agency, counted an average of nearly 260,000 hate crimes each year in an annual survey between 2004 and 2012.
Nor is Minnesota unusual in its spotty reporting. An Associated Press investigation earlier this year found that nearly one in five city and county law enforcement agencies nationwide did not submit a single hate crime report for the FBI’s annual total between 2009 and 2014.
Less than a third of the 86 Minnesota agencies with at least 25 officers sent in reports every year during that same period.
The BJS also estimated that, in 2012, nearly 60 percent of hate-crime victims never report their cases to police.
At the Twin Cities CAIR office, Hussein said he encounters that challenge among some Muslim families and religious institutions who fear that reporting may only worsen the situation by bringing unwanted media attention or emboldening their attackers to retaliate. But the first thing he advises them to do is to file a report with law enforcement to put the event on record.
“The rate and severity of hate crimes in Minnesota is alarming right now,” Hussein said, referring to high-profile cases like a June shooting of two Somali-American men in Dinkytown that remains under FBI investigation. “But these bigger cases are not anomalies. They just passed a level or threshold where they’re no longer hideable.”