Building Community Trust Is Key to Improving Hate Crime Reporting

“We can’t do anything about the crimes we don’t know about”

In FBI field offices nationwide, agents and community outreach specialists are working every day to address the barriers that prevent people from reporting hate crimes. Investigators and victim specialists say those barriers can include mistrust of law enforcement, worry about immigration status, not knowing how to report, and not believing the report will be treated seriously. 

This fall, the FBI launched a national campaign with billboards, ads, and radio spots that seek to build awareness around how to report a hate crime to the FBI. The ads were put out in dozens of languages and customized to local communities.

Building trust within those communities so individuals feel comfortable reporting is the second—and far harder—part of the task. “It’s something we work on every day,” said Special Agent Kyle Biebesheimer, one of the hate crimes coordinators in the FBI San Francisco Field Office. “Trying to identify those communities where we can make a difference. Reach out to those communities. Build trust with those communities.”

Those aims led to a virtual meeting this summer between FBI San Francisco and Russell Jeung, a sociology professor at San Francisco State University and one of the founders of Stop AAPI Hate. Stop AAPI Hate was launched in March 2020 to track and respond to the steep increase in racist incidents directed at the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the incidents recorded by the Stop AAPI Hate involved hate speech, which is often hurtful and traumatizing but does not in and of itself violate the law. But Jeung also said that the organization was getting a large number of reports of vandalism, destruction of property, and violent assaults that should be investigated by law enforcement.

The FBI defines 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.

“As investigators, we can’t do anything about the crimes we don’t know about. We have to get better.”

Kyle Biebesheimer, special agent, FBI San Francisco

Months later, the statistics collected by the FBI would show the reports coming into Stop AAPI Hate were no anomaly. The 2020 hate crime statistics showed 8,052 single-bias incidents involving 11,126 victims. These numbers are the highest since 2008 and showed an increase in crimes targeting Black, Asian, and Jewish individuals.

It is also highly likely that these numbers represent an incomplete count, in part because law enforcement agencies are encouraged to report these numbers but are not required to do so, and also because so many victims never come forward.

Among Jeung’s recommendations for addressing the reporting gap were to show how reporting makes a difference, recruit more FBI agents and personnel from diverse backgrounds, and use Asian-language media to encourage reporting. The professor was also able to explain the roots of racism against Asians and offer other suggestions for improving relationships.

“Many communities don’t always feel comfortable coming forward to law enforcement. That’s a big problem for us,” said Biebesheimer. “As investigators, we can’t do anything about the crimes we don’t know about. We have to get better.”

That commitment is echoed by FBI Supervisory Special Agent Daudshah Andish, the program coordinator for the Civil Rights Division in San Francisco. It’s why his squad assigned agents to be dedicated hate crime coordinators—and why he sees their work as an essential part of the FBI’s mission to defend civil rights.

“Hate crimes are not only an attack on the victim, but they also threaten and intimidate the entire community,” Andish said. “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.”