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The FBI’s 2021 Hate Crime Data Is Worse Than Meaningless

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Editor’s Note: To understand the state of extremism and the risk to various minority communities, accurate data on hate crimes is essential—which is why Congress passed the Hate Crime Statistics Act three decades ago. Researchers have long noted that the data the FBI gathers has many problems, but this year’s report is worse than usual. American University’s Cynthia Miller-Idriss dissects the latest report, arguing that it is deeply flawed and highly misleading. If the flawed report must be presented, it would be best to do so in a way that makes its many problems clear.

Daniel Byman

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The FBI released its 2021 hate crime report this week amid widespread criticism that its analysis rests on incomplete data and was hindered by a significant drop in local agency reporting.

At first glance, the report suggests that there has been a decline in hate crimes, as reported crimes dropped to 7,262 crimes from last year’s 12-year high of 8,263. But nearly 40 percent of agencies across the country failed to report any data at all for 2021—only 11,883 of 18,812 agencies reported. In 2020, FBI hate crime statistics for the nation included data received from 15,138 of 18,625 agencies. The 2021 data reflects a reduction of about 20 percent from the previous year’s submissions.

Reporting hate crime statistics to the FBI is voluntary, part of an annual collection by the FBI since 1990, after Congress passed the Hate Crime Statistics Act. That voluntary reporting fell considerably during the 2021 shift to the FBI’s new database, the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).

The Justice Department gave out $120 million in grants to local law enforcement agencies to help them transition to the new system—but the transition still fell short. Several states and major metropolitan areas didn’t report any data and therefore “are not included in the 2021 reported totals,” the Department of Justice noted this week by way of explanation. The statement promised that future statistical collection will provide a “more complete picture of hate crimes nationwide.”

That promise is too little, too late for the thousands of hate crime victims who are left out of the data, and for the policymakers and researchers who will draw flawed conclusions from it.

The data that did get reported in 2021 is terribly uneven, leading to skewed results. Some states, like Vermont and Delaware, reported data from 100 percent of their jurisdictions, while other states, including Florida, California, and Pennsylvania, had almost no reporting. Only two jurisdictions in Florida and 15 in California sent data from their approximately 750 local law enforcement agencies. There is no data at all from the police departments in New York City, Miami, Chicago, or Los Angeles. 

This makes the federal hate crime data for 2021 meaningless.

Hate crime data have always been problematic and are regularly critiqued for seriously underestimating the scope of the problem. The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, for example, uses a different methodology and reports violent hate crime victimization rates of about 1 in 1,000 individuals, or about 250,000 hate crime victimizations each year—more than 30 times what the FBI data says.

But the 2021 data goes a step beyond even these problems by presenting incomplete and skewed data as a representative national data set. The FBI hate crime website repeatedly uses phrases that describe the data as hate crime statistics “for the nation,” which implies that the data represent the problem at the national level despite the omission of some of the most populous areas in the country. This exacerbates existing problems with hate crime statistics in ways that have tremendous policy and resource implications.

Statisticians have techniques to interpolate incomplete data, but even the kind of bootstrapping that social scientists typically do to estimate averages can’t solve the 2021 data problems. The only accurate statement that could be made about the 2021 data is that overall hate crimes have increased significantly. A report of 7,300 incidents submitted by only 63 percent of local agencies is a big jump from 8,300 incidents reported by over 80 percent of jurisdictions. But there is no way to describe how big the growth was, in part because reporting was so uneven across urban and rural areas.

Much of the missing data, for example, is from major metropolitan regions where big increases in hate crimes have already been documented. Hate crimes are now at the highest level in two decades in Los Angeles Country, with nearly 800 hate crimes documented there last year. But the FBI data show only 73 hate crimes for the entire state of California in 2021. Hate crimes in New York City were up 76 percent in early 2022 compared to the same period a year earlier, according to the NYPD’s Hate Crime Task Force, but FBI data shows none at all. Nationally, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism shows sharp increases in hate crimes across the country, with a 20 percent increase across a sample of major U.S. cities in 2021 and ongoing increases in 2022. None of that is reflected in the 2021 FBI data.

It is a stunning act of misrepresentation to release data this flawed. Hate crime data are used to document trends in violence against targeted groups, with implications for policy attention, resource allocation, and strategies for prevention of hate-fueled violence.

What Should Be Done?

The 2021 data should not have been publicly reported at all. It is simply not meaningful—in fact, it is actually misleading—to share a “national” data report that can’t be used properly. Since the NIBRS transition fell short, the data should simply be left blank with an explanation of the missing year. Short of removing the data, the FBI should put a clear asterisk next to all reports using the 2021 numbers noting the flaws, and should make it clear at the top of its website and in all public discussions that the 2021 data are problematic and should not be used for comparisons with previous or future years. If the data remains accessible to the public, the FBI should work to backfill missing data with as many reports from local precincts as possible, so that the 2021 data can become more representative over time.

Also needed are immediate strategies to ensure that the debacle in hate crime reporting for 2021 is not repeated. Congress should pass legislation that mandates reporting of hate crime statistics to the FBI from every local jurisdiction across the country and provide resources to do this. Federal funding to law enforcement agencies should be conditioned on that reporting.

Even if the 2022 reporting improves, the FBI should forever discourage use of the 2021 data or comparisons to it. The data is misleading, skewed, and woefully unrepresentative of the rising hate affecting communities across the nation.