Hate crimes are the highest priority of the FBI’s civil rights program because of the devastating impact they have on families and communities.
The Bureau investigates hundreds of these cases every year, and we work to detect and prevent incidents through law enforcement training, public outreach, and partnerships with community groups.
Traditionally, FBI investigations of hate crimes were limited to crimes in which the perpetrators acted based on a bias against the victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin. In addition, investigations were restricted to those wherein the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity. With the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the Bureau became authorized to also investigate crimes committed against those based on biases of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or gender.
The FBI investigated what are now called hate crimes as far back as World War I. Our role increased following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Before then, the federal government took the position that protection of civil rights was a local function, not a federal one. However, the murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in June 1964 provided the impetus for a visible and sustained federal effort to protect and foster civil rights for African Americans.
The case, known as Mississippi Burning, became the largest federal investigation ever conducted in Mississippi. On October 20, 1967, seven men were convicted of conspiring to violate the constitutional rights of the slain civil rights workers. All seven were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 10 years.
A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.
As part of its responsibility to uphold the civil rights of the American people, the FBI takes a number of steps to combat hate crimes.
Investigative activities: The FBI is the lead investigative agency for criminal violations of federal civil rights statutes. The Bureau works closely with its local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners around the country in many of these cases.
Law enforcement support: The FBI works closely with state/local/tribal authorities on investigations, even when federal charges are not brought. FBI resources, forensic expertise, and experience in identification and proof of hate-based motivations often provide an invaluable complement to local law enforcement. Many cases are also prosecuted under state statutes such as murder, arson, or more recent local ethnic intimidation laws. Once the state prosecution begins, the Department of Justice follows the proceedings to ensure that the federal interest is vindicated and the law is applied equally among the 95 U.S. Judicial Districts.
Public outreach: Outreach is a critical component of the FBI’s civil rights program. The FBI engages with various local and national organizations to help communities understand what constitutes a hate crime and to encourage reporting. Many FBI’s field offices participate in working groups with state and local law enforcement partners, as well as community groups, to develop strategies to address local hate crime problems.
Training: The FBI conducts hundreds of operational seminars, workshops, and training sessions annually for local law enforcement, minority and religious organizations, and community groups to promote cooperation and reduce civil rights abuses. Each year, the FBI also provides hate crimes training for new agents, hundreds of current agents, and thousands of police officers worldwide.