‘The Heart of What We Do’
Hate crimes and civil rights elevated to top national threat priority
A top FBI official speaking at a recent conference on civil rights and hate crimes left little doubt about the Bureau’s central role in protecting the rights of diverse or marginalized communities and enforcing the federal laws designed to protect them.
“The FBI is the first, last, and often the only stop when it comes to protecting civil rights,” FBI Associate Deputy Director Jeffrey Sallet said during an FBI conference in Denver that included FBI personnel, local law enforcement agencies, and representatives from leading civil rights organizations. “Civil rights investigations are at the heart of what we do at the FBI for the simple reason that civil liberties and civil rights are the very heart of who we are as Americans.”
The conference in early June was the first of six regional gatherings the FBI is hosting this year. The goals are multifold: help local police agencies better understand federal civil rights and hate crimes laws; encourage reporting of civil rights crimes; strengthen relationships between the FBI, local police, and local civil rights organizations; and build trust within the diverse communities they serve.
The FBI’s efforts extend well beyond a listening tour. Sallet said the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division has elevated civil rights violations to its highest-level national threat priority—a measure of how the FBI allocates money and resources. The change prioritizes civil rights and hate crimes in every one of the Bureau’s 56 field offices and promises resources to scale up efforts for investigations and outreach.
“Doing so sends a powerful message to those that are affected by such crimes—that they are valued, that their communities are important, and that law enforcement will not stand by when they are targeted,” said United States Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who spoke at the conference. She said the Department of Justice (DOJ) is urging federal prosecutors to proactively get out into their communities. And she has assigned a hate crimes coordinator to function as a central hub to service prosecutors and FBI offices, which also have full-time civil rights coordinators.
“Civil liberties and civil rights are the very heart of who we are as Americans.”
Jeff Sallet, associate deputy director, FBI
Federal prosecutors have charged more than 90 people with bias-motivated crimes over the past four years and convicted more than 75 of them. In the most recent fiscal year, the DOJ has charged 25 people in 20 cases, resulting in more than 15 convictions, according to Gupta. Meanwhile, the FBI has seen a 25% increase in the number of reported hate crimes over the last five years—7,300 in 2019.
But many believe the actual number of hate crimes is much higher and that crimes are going unreported. Victims may not be comfortable reporting crimes. And police may not know how to accurately define a hate crime—or may be disinclined to report civil rights or hate-biased crime figures to the FBI, which tracks the data in its National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS. Sending crime data to NIBRS is voluntary for law enforcement agencies, and the lack of data makes it difficult to develop a clear picture of the problem and how to address it.
“We want to make sure that agencies know the importance of reporting hate crimes,” said Dave Scott, chief of the FBI Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section. “Better reporting to NIBRS is going to give us more specificity in the types of crimes being committed, who’s committing them—all kinds of additional data that we haven’t had before. That’ll give us the ability to try to dig down, have analysts look at what exactly is going on in these communities. Where is it happening the most? Are there pockets of hate crimes that are occurring? The reporting is critical. It’s absolutely critical.”
Scott said the lack of good data breeds mistrust within the organizations that represent victims of civil rights and hate crimes. “They don’t trust the FBI’s numbers if they’re hearing that only a certain number of agencies are reporting,” Scott said.
Associate Attorney General Gupta said that the lack of accurate data inhibits law enforcement’s ability to address and prevent hate crimes. She explained that the recent passage of legislation that specifically provides funding for state and local agencies to improve their reporting and develop policies to fight hate crimes was an important step.
“I see the passage of the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, along with the advent of the NIBRS system, as a unique opportunity to hit reset, both with respect to the vast number of law enforcement agencies that are currently reporting zero hate crimes to the FBI or that don’t participate at all in the hate crime statistics reporting program,” Gupta said. “The time is right now for the FBI to approach each and every law enforcement agency in your district that reports zero hate crimes or does not participate in hate crimes reporting to learn what’s going on and why that’s happening.”
“We want to make sure that agencies know the importance of reporting hate crimes.”
Dave Scott, chief, FBI Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section
More than 30 law enforcement agencies were represented at the Denver conference, along with speakers from organizations that have decades of experience fighting for civil rights on behalf of diverse communities. Among them were the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles, and the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
The organizations provided a front-row perspective on how police and the FBI can better relate to their diverse constituencies. Foremost was getting out and cultivating relationships now.
“Connect proactively—don’t wait for the community to come to you,” said Connie Chung-Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles, a legal services and civil rights organization that predominantly serves Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities. “You go to that community first to establish that trust. It takes a lot of networking and outreach to penetrate the AAPI community, because we’re so incredibly diverse and we have so many different languages and religions and cultures.”
Judy Shepard, who with her husband, Dennis, co-founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation to honor their 21-year-old son who was killed in a hate crime in Wyoming in 1998, echoed the sentiment. She said that a better understanding of the gay community—and all marginalized communities—could lead to better communication and reporting.
“There’s a level of ignorance about how to operate in a community you’re unfamiliar with,” Judy Shepard said. “How the tendency may be to actually insult them rather than help them. There are nuances involved in all marginalized communities. All afternoon we’ve been talking about that. And I hope they recognize it, because it’s crucial to the victim’s family, and the victims themselves.”
These are the conversations the Civil Rights Unit hoped would be a starting point toward better understanding among the varied attendees. Ron Reed, chief of the Civil Rights Unit at FBI Headquarters, said giving local police better tools to investigate hate crimes—and a better understanding of federal laws—can pay dividends, even if it’s just learning how to talk to victims.
“It’s not the victim’s job to know what to tell us,” Reed said. “It’s our job as law enforcement to know the right questions to ask to get to the bottom of it.”
“Don’t wait for the community to come to you. You go to that community first to establish that trust.”
Connie Chung-Joe, CEO, Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles
In the coming months, similar conferences will be held in Louisville, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Tampa, and New Orleans and will include more than 150 agencies in addition to the FBI. Field office leaders, meanwhile, will be reaching out to their local civil rights organizations and police to cultivate or nurture their relationships while stressing to each the importance of reporting all potential civil rights or hate crimes.
“We are recognizing that civil rights need to become a much higher point of focus for us,” said Jay Greenberg, deputy assistant director of the FBI Criminal Investigative Division. “By letting communities know that we are here to protect them—and that we are members of those communities as well—that is the first step to building trust-based relationships to keep those communities safe.”