Kristen Fletcher: In 2020, the FBI received the highest number of hate crime reports in more than a decade. Community organizations, faith groups, and local leaders are also ringing alarm bells about an increase in hate speech and hate crimes.
In May of last year, the Department of Justice announced a series of concentrated efforts to prevent and address hate crimes, and the FBI elevated them to a top national threat priority. That helps us to access more funding and more resources.
As a law enforcement organization, the FBI may not be able to alter the individual forces that lead someone to commit a bias crime—but we can be one of the forces that shows crimes driven by hate will not be tolerated.
In this episode of Inside the FBI, we’ll examine what constitutes a hate crime in the eyes of the law. We’ll discuss how they are investigated, and how the Bureau is working to support victims, encourage reporting, and build greater trust in minority communities. We’ll also dig into why this work matters so much and introduce you to some of the FBI personnel who have dedicated themselves to it.
I’m Kristen Fletcher. This is Inside the FBI.
* * *
Fletcher: In many types of cases, it’s helpful to know someone’s motive for committing a crime. The jury may want to understand the “why” behind a murder or a bank robbery. In some cases, intent is important.
But hate crimes are the only offense that require a prosecutor to prove an offender’s motive.
In a hate crime, you have to prove a crime was committed because of a bias. When that is the case, federal law and the laws in the vast majority of U.S. states make a distinction in how the case is dealt with.
The “why” is crucial in prosecuting the case. And it’s vital in the work law enforcement does to combat hate crimes.
We spoke to a number of FBI employees who support hate crime investigations, and we asked them: “Why does this work matter?”
Regina Thompson: Hate crimes are different from other crimes of violence as they attack a person or a community’s identity—some core, immutable characteristic that strikes at the heart of who they are. So, in essence, they’re being attacked for something that they can’t change.
Hate crimes are especially terrifying as they are a “message” crime, meaning that they’re meant to terrorize victims, their families, and also entire communities. They send the message that they’re unwelcome and unsafe where they live and where they work.
It is also important to acknowledge that, due to the nature of hate crimes, victims of hate crimes may experience more psychological distress than victims of other types of violent crime.
Daudshah Andish: As you know, the mission of the FBI is to protect the and defend the Constitution of the United States. Hate crimes attack and erode the basic fabric of our society. When kids are telling their parents, “Don’t step outside the house,” because there’s that fear something may happen to you or especially the elderly minority family members.
This is a free country. Everybody should be able to get out of their houses, enjoy the public spaces and go about their business without any fear of violence or retribution.
Johnson: So when someone is actually doing these hate crimes, they're not only terrorizing the individual, they’re also terrorizing the community, as well. So, it has a bigger impact than just with that individual community or group.
There’s a whole community behind it.
Fletcher: Those were the voices of Regina Thompson, the head of the FBI’s Victim Services Division; Daudshah Andish, who leads the civil rights squad within the FBI’s San Francisco Field Office; and Supervisory Special Agent Johnson, who supports the civil rights division at FBI Headquarters.
Hate crimes stand apart because, as Regina Thompson said, they are meant to send a message. At the same time, how law enforcement—and we as a nation—respond to these crimes also sends a message.
When Vanita Gupta, associate attorney general at the Justice Department, addressed the crowd at a Hate Crimes Conference in Denver this past summer, she took a moment to speak directly to Dennis and Judy Shepard, who were in the audience that day. Their son, Matthew, was a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten and left to die on a barbed wire fence in 1998. He was targeted because he was gay.
Vanita Gupta: Judy and Dennis have been inspirations to me personally, but also to all of us who have been fighting the scourge of hate in our communities through their example.
Fletcher: Amid their trauma and loss, the Shepards turned to advocacy. Their work was instrumental to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which became law in 2009.
That law expanded the definition of a hate crime. Before its passage, hate crime laws only applied to federally protected activities, like voting. The new law also extended who is protected to include individuals who are targeted for their actual or perceived gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation.
Later in her speech, Gupta said that, when it came to their son, the Shepards didn’t let tragedy have the last word.
What’s more, they didn’t let hate have the last word.
The law that bears the name of their son and that of James Byrd, Jr. and the commitment of the Department of Justice and the FBI—they’re about responding with action, with justice, and with support for victims.
One of the challenges with hate crimes is that not all acts of hate can be investigated as hate crimes. So let’s go back to how the law defines a hate crime and how potential hate crimes are investigated.
Here’s Supervisory Special Agent Johnson again to explain:
Johnson: A hate crime is a traditional offense, like murder or arson or vandalism, except for we have an added element of bias.
So, it’s a criminal act against a person or property motivated by an offender’s bias against a race, someone’s ethnicity, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or even gender identity.
Fletcher: The law draws a distinction between a hate crime and a hate incident.
Hate speech, for example, can be extremely hurtful and harmful, but it is a protected form of expression in this country. Unless it is accompanied by violence, a threat, or damage to property, it doesn’t violate the law.
But when there is a criminal act and evidence of a bias motivation, authorities can pursue it as a potential hate crime.
Supervisory Special Agent Andish from the San Francisco Field Office lays out where the investigation goes next:
Andish: Then, we have to prove that the person that committed the crime had a bias towards that person’s race, ethnicity. If it wasn’t for that bias, the crime would not have otherwise occurred. So, it’s a really high bar when it comes to federal statutes and proving these beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. So, for investigators, it’s important at the very beginning of the case to make sure that those elements are present while investigating.
Fletcher: So, what kind of evidence helps law enforcement prove a hate-based motive?
Andish: So it’s a combination of evidence.
You have to prove that bias exists, and how do we do that? Witness interviews. A lot of times, you know, the witnesses hear when a crime is happening. Witness statements are very important to determine if that crime happened because of a bias or was it unprovoked.
Second, we look at, you know, digital media or any kind of social media postings—whether that person previously posted things against that race. We also, nowadays everybody has a cell phone, so if there’s a recording—whether it’s a cellphone recording or CCTV—we follow up with those locations that contain that.
But really, what it comes down to is close collaboration with the local law enforcement, because we’re not first responders. As you know, when hate crimes do occur, people tend to call 911 first. So, when the investigators show up on scene, they start interviewing people and they start gathering evidence. We have to depend on them initially to get all the facts of the case, and then we can determine a way forward.
Fletcher: FBI San Francisco recently worked alongside the Santa Cruz Police Department to bring federal hate crime charges against a man who stabbed a Black pedestrian while yelling slurs.
California has strong hate crime laws. But in that case, all of the investigative agencies agreed the case would be stronger in federal court—and it was the first case the Northern District of California prosecuted under the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes law.
Federal prosecution, though, isn’t a requirement for the FBI to offer its resources during an investigation. The FBI lends support to local agencies in areas like evidence collection and laboratory services, and it can offer expertise in identifying hate-based motivations. The FBI has also stepped in to provide publicity and rewards in an effort to solve cold cases.
But investigations—and certainly prosecutions—can only happen when hate crimes are reported.
This is an area where the FBI and other law enforcement agencies know there is work to do.
Despite the volumes of hate crimes reported to the FBI last year, the reality is hate crimes are underreported.
Those who work these cases say the reasons people don’t report can vary. Some communities mistrust law enforcement. Language barriers, concerns about immigration status, or not knowing how to report can deter others. Some people may feel unsure about whether reporting can or will make a difference. And victims or witnesses may not want to relive the trauma of an event.
At the FBI, we know the job isn’t just supporting the investigation of hate crimes—it’s also about making sure those who experienced or witnessed them come forward to police or call the FBI.
To raise awareness and encourage hate-crime reporting, the FBI recently launched a publicity campaign with ads and billboards on highways and buses and train stations, social media posts, and radio and TV spots.
Thompson: The FBI’s hate crime awareness campaign is a nationwide effort between FBI headquarters and the local 56 field offices.
The two-prong approach is very important, as local efforts need to be tailored to the communities they serve, both in how and where the information is communicated and in relevant languages.
The Victim Services Division plays a critical role in the campaign by ensuring that the FBI’s national and local messaging is victim-centered, culturally sensitive, and tailored to community needs, all of which plays a major role in encouraging reporting and also making reporting mechanisms accessible to all communities.
Fletcher: That was Regina Thompson again, the head of the Victim Services Division. Victim Services is one of the lesser-known areas of focus for the FBI. Her office ensures the victims of federal crimes receive the resources, information, and support they need and deserve.
Thompson and her team of victim specialists know they are another essential part of the effort to improve reporting and investigative success.
Thompson: So, how the FBI treats victims is a direct reflection of our core values, and when we place a high priority on identifying and addressing their needs, it is beneficial in so many ways.
Most importantly, it promotes victim safety and recovery and reduces the potential for future victimizations. It also plays an important role in obtaining positive investigative and prosecutorial outcomes, as victims are more likely to engage in the investigative and criminal process if they’re feeling supported.
Fletcher: That support includes a number of things:
Thompson: In terms of services, first and foremost, victims can be expected to be treated with understanding, dignity, and respect. Victims will likely engage with a victim specialist, and they will assist with assessing safety and individual needs. They will discuss a wide range of emotional responses that people might feel, both directly in the aftermath and sometimes long after a crime has occurred. They will also connect them with needed counseling or medical services.
Fletcher: Each FBI field office has also been doing outreach events to strengthen connections within the community. These are sometimes led by community and religious leaders who share information with FBI personnel. Others are led by the FBI, with a goal of helping people understand what a hate crime is, how they are investigated, and how to report to us.
In San Francisco, the FBI has two dedicated hate crimes coordinators, including Special Agent Kyle Biebesheimer. He says there is a lot of ground to cover in the large, densely populated area around San Francisc, and a lot of people to reach. He also admits that the FBI is not always a welcomed presence.
Kyle Biebesheimer: And it’s something that we work on, you know, every day, trying to identify those communities where we can make a difference. Reach out to those communities. Build trust with those communities, in the hopes that, yeah, not only they’ll have a better opinion of, say, the FBI, but an opinion and a level of trust where they might feel comfortable coming to us and reporting their victimization so that we can do something about it.
Fletcher: When the office is invited to speak to a group who was previously unwilling to meet with them, Biebesheimer sees where their persistence and their presence may have helped crack open a door to building a better relationship.
Showing investigative successes can help strengthen trust in law enforcement, too. San Francisco did that with the case of the bias-driven assault on the Black man in Santa Cruz. The man who committed that crime was sentenced to more than six years in prison after a federal jury found him guilty.
Investigative support and resources, a victim-centered response, and outreach to communities form the basis of the FBI’s work to combat hate crimes. And the work is being done by FBI personnel who are passionate about the mission.
Agent Biebeshemer told us how powerful it was for him to meet Matthew Shephard’s parents, to be able to tell them about working a case that was supported by their son’s law. Supervisory Special Agent Johnson said that every day, she feels driven by the work to protect people’s civil rights. And Regina Thompson referenced her past experience working as a clinical social worker—where she also saw the effects of hate crimes—as motivation in her current role.
Thompson: And so, in addition to my primary portfolio of domestic violence and sexual assault, we also saw incidents of hate crime and the impact that it could have, not just on the individual but also in the community. So, having seen that, up close and firsthand in supporting victims who have experienced hate crimes, it has really stayed with me over my entire career with the FBI.
Fletcher: Supervisory Special Agent Daudshah Andish originally came to the United States from Afghanistan. When September 11 occurred, his community became a target of harassment.
So, when the Asian-American Pacific Islander community was unfairly blamed as COVID-19 began to spread, Andish says he could deeply relate to how that feels.
Andish: Civil rights is very near and dear to my heart, and it’s one of the reasons I continue to work this violation.
We stand by our minority communities in the Bay Area and throughout the nation, and we’ll continue to fight on their behalf in investigating hate crimes.
Fletcher: To learn more about how the FBI investigates hate crimes or see our hate crime data, visit fbi.gov/hatecrimes.
To report a hate crime, reach out to your local FBI field office, call 1-800-CALL-FBI, or submit a tip online at tips.fbi.gov.
This has been another episode of Inside the FBI.
You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.
I’m Kristen Fletcher with the FBI Office of Public Affairs. Thank you for tuning in.