On a Saturday evening in the summer of 2018, a group of three people — two men, apparently in their early 20s, and a woman — were spreading a bag of rock salt across a parking lot at Brigham Young University.
An observer initially didn’t think much of the incident, despite it being July with no sign of ice in the forecast. But after she looked closer, she called police.
The trio had left the partially used bag on top of someone’s car — after arranging the salt in the shape of a swastika.
Those aren’t the only documented incidents missing from those annual reports. A widely reported attack occurred in Salt Lake City in November 2018, when a man went to a tire shop, allegedly yelled, “I’m here to kill a Mexican” and beat a Latino father and son. That case also isn’t reflected in the statistics, according to responses to The Salt Tribune’s records requests for all police reports that underlie the data.
The three hate crimes reported on the University of Utah campus and included in its Clery report are missing, too.
These are just nine of the estimated hundreds of thousands of hate crimes the FBI numbers don’t capture. That’s why researchers at the U., community advocates and experts caution people to read the national reports — which show a decrease in hate crimes in 2018 from 2017 — with a proverbial grain of salt.
In fact, state statistics show an increase in hate crimes in Utah in 2018, a trend community activists also say they have seen.
Emily Nicolosi, a hate crimes researcher at the U., said the FBI numbers “have to be taken in the context of victim-level, police-level, department-level, state policy-level barriers to hate crime reporting.”
“… They cannot be viewed as, ‘This is the exact number of hate crimes,’” Nicolosi said. “They were the exact number of hate crimes that law enforcement reported to the FBI.”
To show the scope of underreporting to police, she pointed to a March 2019 report from the Department of Justice. From 2013 to 2017, it said, the average annual number of hate crime victimizations in the U.S. was around 204,600.
But about 102,000 of those, on average, were being reported to police agencies across the country, the DOJ said. And the average number of hate crimes tallied by the FBI during that period — through voluntary reports from police agencies that chose to submit — was 7,500.
Why don’t the numbers add up?
In 2017, law enforcement nationwide reported 7,175 “criminal incidents” considered hate crimes. The 2018 total was slightly down, with 7,120 such incidents. As in years past, most 2018 hate crimes were committed because of someone’s race, followed by religion and sexual orientation.
That national data also showed a decrease in Utah, where 78 incidents were reported to the FBI in 2017, dropping to 33 last year.
But the state’s report, compiled by the Department of Public Safety, showed a significant increase in the number of Utahns victimized by hate crimes in 2018, jumping to 52 from 35.
Nationally, fewer law enforcement agencies sent data to the FBI, which may account for the country’s decrease. The same number of agencies reported from Utah this year, but some reported zero incidents. Yet some that reported zero appear to have actually investigated hate crimes, such as officers at BYU and the U.
The FBI’s higher bar for reporting explains the discrepancy between the zero the U. reported to the federal agency and the three in the annual campus safety report required by the Clery Act, said U. police spokesman Lt. Jason Hinojosa.
For a hate crime to appear in a Clery report, Hinojosa said, it needs only to be disclosed by a victim. The FBI requires a two-step verification, he said: a hate crime report and a confirmation by officers.
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins added that the FBI and state reports include data only from police, while information reported under Clery is drawn from police, university housing officials and the school’s Title IX office, which investigates gender-based violence and discrimination.
Yet, BYU police did investigate at least one of the five hate crimes included in the school’s Clery report — the salt swastika — because it generated a police report obtained by The Tribune through an open-records request. Officers categorized it as criminal mischief.
BYU didn’t respond to an email seeking clarification of why that incident wasn’t reported to the FBI.
Hinojosa said the incidents contained in the U.’s Clery report were simple assaults, and noted one resulted in misdemeanor charges. The Tribune has requested U. police reports related to those assaults but has not received them.
Generally, state numbers are more correct, said Mandy Biesinger, Uniform Crime Reporting manager for Utah’s Bureau of Criminal Identification. That’s because the FBI receives its annual data from the state around March, she said. The state’s report has a later deadline for local agencies and sends them validation reports, giving them the chance to correct any inaccuracies.
Other reasons the numbers can look different:
• The state tracks hate crimes by the number of victims, while the FBI uses the number of incidents. An assault case with two victims would count as two hate crimes in Utah’s numbers, and one in the FBI tally.
• Clerical errors can occur as officers input codes to classify reports, and other human mistakes happen, said Salt Lake City police spokesman Detective Greg Wilking.
For example, the majority of hate crimes reported in 2018 were in Salt Lake City — but that’s only according to the state numbers, which have 23 victims from 18 incidents. The FBI recorded only four in Salt Lake City during the same year.
As for why the tire shop assaults don’t appear in Salt Lake City’s data, Wilking said there were two concerns. Police questioned whether drugs or mental health issues may have clouded the judgment of the alleged attacker, which could impact whether they could show he had the intent to commit a hate crime, Wilking said.
The issue also was complicated because the man, Alan D. Covington, might have Latino ancestry himself, Wilking said. Covington has since been charged with a federal hate crime.
There’s still value in publishing the national report, despite the incompleteness of the data, said Salt Lake City FBI Supervisory Agent Drew Scown. “The thing that’s most useful for us is [seeing what’s] trending,” he said. The annual report also “keeps the public aware that these types of incidents do happen.”
To help improve the reports, Utah lawmakers in 2018 passed legislation requiring police agencies to send their crime data to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system (which federal officials consider voluntary). It also requires timely reports to state officials, so they can validate data throughout the year.
Of the 41 individual cases Utah agencies said they tallied in 2018, it appears 10 resulted in criminal charges. Only one was prosecuted with a sentencing enhancement for hate crimes, according to a Tribune analysis based on 40 of the 41 underlying police reports.
At the time, the enhancement could be used only with misdemeanor-level offenses, which blocked its use in some cases considered hate crimes by police.
A 2018 misdemeanor threats case prosecuted by Saratoga Springs City Attorney Kevin Thurman could have been enhanced as a hate crime, but Thurman said whoever evaluated the case appeared to have forgotten he or she could do so. Looking back, he said, his office should have used the enhancement.
“I’ll have to look at the statute and make sure we’re all educated on that,” Thurman said. “I think it’s important to file on those, if we can enhance those.”
The one case The Tribune confirmed was enhanced involved a man charged with assault for allegedly making derogatory comments and threatening a Christian church pastor and congregant in Salt Lake City in January 2018. He later pleaded guilty to an amended charge of disorderly conduct, an infraction.
A stronger hate crimes law took effect this summer, allowing felonies to be enhanced. It comes with a new set of challenges: Training law enforcement and prosecutors so they can correctly recognize and classify hate crimes, and add enhancements when appropriate, said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.
Utahns also need to be alerted that some of the things they experience are, in fact, hate crimes, he said.
“It’s sort of like muscle memory,” Gill said. Law enforcement has “had such a long history of nonresponse, and also, given historically that these are often very underreported, you have to have that community education piece.”
Before law enforcement can identify and seek to prosecute an offense as a hate crime, it has to be reported. And often people from historically marginalized communities don’t trust the police, experts and advocates say, which means few get past that first hurdle.
Yehemy Zavala Orozco, who works at the West Valley City-based Latino advocacy group Comunidades Unidas, offered her own experience. She was on a Utah Transit Authority train last year, talking with colleagues in Spanish, when a man angrily yelled at them and told them to go back to where they came from. They felt scared.
When law enforcement arrived, Orozco said, the officer told her there was nothing police could do. Many Comunidades Unidas clients have experienced intimidation and threats like this, she added, and they often choose not to make reports because they fear police will dismiss their concerns.
When clients do report, Orozco said, it’s often hard to to convey what happened because the dispatched officer often doesn’t speak Spanish, and sometimes it takes too long for a Spanish-speaking community advocate to arrive on scene.
So, she said, many Spanish-speaking people choose to live in fear and relative silence in public spaces, worried that if they speak, they’ll be persecuted — and if that happens, no one will help them.
She said some of her colleagues have stopped using public transportation because of harassment, and instead budget to use ride-sharing applications like Lyft and Uber.
The frequency of confrontations like these make Orozco incredulous of the downward trend in hate crimes reported to the FBI. “After the elections, and it was specifically after the elections, at least once a week, we will have some things [said] regarding our language, or heritage or because of the look that we have,” Orozco said.
Seeing the full picture of bias
Lex Scott, with Utah Black Lives Matter, said she also hears too many stories from people she works with to believe hate crimes are decreasing.
And, she added, there’s the issue of police bias in reporting and classifying incidents as hate crimes. That’s why she encourages people to report hate crimes to the FBI, even if they don’t feel comfortable going to local police.
The FBI’s civil rights division is required to investigate each report it gets, she said.
“Why would we ever expect racist police to forward hate crimes when they’re racist in the first place? I’m not saying all police are racist,” she said. “I’m saying all police have implicit biases, and until they understand advanced racial concepts and racial disparities, they will not fully understand how to see that a hate crime has been committed.”
While the state’s report tallied 11 black victims of hate crimes in 2018, it also counted seven victims attacked for being white.
And U. researcher Richard Medina, who created a hate crime tracking app with Nicolosi, said hate against white people is often overlooked as an issue. He said in many circles, there’s a belief that you can’t commit hate crimes against white people, specifically white, Christian men.
Before the civil rights movement, Medina said, hate crimes were almost exclusively committed by white people against black people and other marginalized groups. Today, hate crimes are being committed by and against various groups, he said.
“Younger white kids, they don’t even remember the civil rights movement or anything. They just feel targeted because they’re growing up in this environment where they feel it’s not OK to be white or male,” he said, “and of course, the online stuff is going to grab onto these kids and radicalize them more as they grow.”
Not recognizing the current state of hate and bias, he said, just might fuel it.