Race in Alabama

A Lack of Hate or Lack of Reporting?: Alabama Has Reported Zero Hate Crimes in the Past Two Years

The burning cross, as in this 2005 photo of a Ku Klux Klan event, is the quintessential symbol of hate crimes. But hate crimes are much broader than that today. CC BY-SA3.0

On April 9, 2020, the Etz Chayim Synagogue in Huntsville was defaced with antisemitic graffiti. The following day, the Chabad of Huntsville was vandalized with similar hate speech. Security footage taken from both scenes indicates the same perpetrator committed both crimes. Given that they took place on the first night of the Jewish holiday Passover, the crimes are thought to be meticulously planned and executed with one purpose: to send a message of hate to the Jewish community.

Mayor Tommy Battle released a statement to the public saying “the city of Huntsville condemns antisemitism in the strongest possible terms” and emphasized Huntsville as a city of inclusivity and acceptance. “Any offense against one is an offense against all,” Battle said.

The case has since been handed over to the FBI, and no perpetrator has been caught.

Despite these attacks against the Jewish community the state of Alabama has reported zero hate crimes to the FBI’s annual Unified Crime Report for the past two years in a row. It is the only state in the country that has reported zero hate crimes.

“It is highly implausible that in 2019 or 2018, no hate crimes were committed in Alabama. Of the over 417 law enforcement agencies in the state, only two actually participated in the 2019 reporting process to the FBI, which is deeply troubling and undoubtedly means that many hate crimes have gone unreported,” said Dr. Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Southern Division.

Crime Reporting Voluntary

The UCR is an annual statistics report published by the FBI that records the various types of crimes committed in a year. Each state reports its numbers to the FBI, which organizes and files the cases based on category. The UCR is, however, voluntary, which means states can choose whether to report their information.

Michael Lieberman is the senior policy adviser for the Southern Poverty Law Center and has worked on some of the most prominent anti-hate bills in the United States, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Lieberman said while reporting to the UCR is voluntary, neglecting to provide information skews the numbers.

“When we talk about the Hate Crime Statistics Act and the FBI’s annual report, we talk about it as the best annual snapshot of hate violence in America and when you have communities not participating, you realize that this best snapshot is not nearly as good as it could be,” said Lieberman.

The FBI’s annual Hate Crime Statistics Act report reveals that 2019 saw a significant jump in hate crime numbers. Fifty-one hate crime murders were committed in 2019; this is a 113% increase over the previous record of 24 set in 2018.

“Total hate crime incidents rose to 7,314, marking the fourth increase in the past five years. After declining in 2018, religion-based hate crimes increased by 7 percent, with 63 percent of the total number of reported religion-based hate crimes directed at Jews and Jewish institutions,” according to the ADL website.

For 2019, the FBI reported that race-based hate crimes remained the most common type of hate crime, constituting more than half of all hate crime categories. They also reported a 14% increase in antisemitic hate crimes, from 835 in 2018 to 953 in 2019. “Sixty-three percent of the total reported religion-based crimes were directed against Jews and Jewish institutions,” the FBI website said.

Antisemitic graffiti. Quinn Dombrowski CC by 2.0

Anti-Hispanic hate crimes rose nearly 9%, the fourth straight year of escalating numbers. The ADL attributes this increase to “the escalation of anti-immigrant rhetoric, bigotry and dehumanization in the public discourse.”

Hate crimes targeting individuals based on gender identity rose another 18% in 2019, just after a 41% increase in 2018.

Lieberman said that while hate crimes are “not necessarily worse than other crimes … they definitely have an impact on the community that is different.”

“If you go to the scene of a crime for a Black family that just moved into the neighborhood and there’s a cross that has been burned on that family’s lawn, and you just report it as, like, trespassing or arson, then you are totally missing so much of what the impact of a burning cross is … . Everybody knows what a burning cross means and that’s why they do it: it’s a message crime,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman added the message of hate from these crimes needs to be handled in the most efficient way possible. “The message has to be responded to by law enforcement and society with seriousness. If you report zero hate crimes, then there’s a reasonable chance the people in your community will not have the expectation that you’re going to be able to respond to a hate crime in the most effective way.”

Alabama’s Hate Crime Law

The Alabama Constitution has a definition for what constitutes a hate crime: “Ala.Code § 13A-5-13 enhances penalties for a crime “the commission of which was shown beyond a reasonable doubt to have been motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or physical or mental disability.”

Whether the crimes reported to the UCR fall under this umbrella, said Lieberman, is “irrelevant.”

“There are 46 states and the District of Columbia that have hate crime laws,” he said. “South Carolina, Indiana, Wyoming and Arkansas are the four that don’t have hate crime laws, but every state is supposed to report data to the FBI. It doesn’t matter whether they have a hate crime law or what their hate crime law covers in order to report their data to the FBI.”

In 2017, approximately 334 police department agencies reported to the FBI for the annual report. In 2019, only two reported — Hoover’s Police Department and the Poarch Creek Tribal Police Department.

According to Lieberman, the number zero associated with Alabama’s UCR count is not a product of oversight. “(The FBI) asks you four different times throughout the year … if you report nothing, like you don’t return their phone calls and their emails, it’s not marked as zero. You have to affirmatively report that you have zero,” he said. “So Alabama affirmatively reported that they had zero hate crimes in 2019. It’s not like they ignored the entreaties. They affirmatively reported that they had zero and they did that in 2018, too.”

The ADL compiled a list of the 10 cities in the United States with populations over 100,000 that did not report any data to the FBI or reported zero. Out of the 10, five were from Alabama. “Unfortunately, in Alabama, Mobile, Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa are all listed,” said Lieberman.

Lieberman agreed with Padilla-Goodman that the probability of zero hate crimes occurring two years in a row is highly unlikely. “I mean, if you’re a city of over 100,000 (people), I guess it’s possible there are no hate crimes that occurred over a year in a city of 100,000 but not year in and year out. You could not have a situation where every year the number was zero,” he said.

So, why has Alabama failed to report hate crimes? “That is clearly a question for Alabama state authorities,” said Lieberman.

Police departments from Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville and Montgomery did not respond to requests for comments. Stephanie Taylor, the media relations officer of the Tuscaloosa Police Department, gave the following statement: “Part of officer training is becoming familiar with city ordinances and state laws. Hate crimes are included in their instruction. If an officer is working a case that could qualify as a hate crime, the procedure would be to consult a magistrate or possibly someone with the district attorney’s office and determine whether there’s enough evidence to file the appropriate charges.”

Taylor said there is a box on the department’s incident/offense reports that officers can check if they believe the crime was “motivated by bias against the victim’s race, religion, ethnicity or national origin, sexual orientation or physical/mental disability. If the answer is yes, they fill out a separate hate crime incident report,” she said.

“Two-Sided Coin”

Lieberman said there are “two sides to the coin.” On one side, people need to be willing to report hate crimes to law enforcement, and on the other side is the responsibility of law enforcement to appropriately identify and respond to attacks. However, if there is no trust between the community and law enforcement, certain individuals may feel their attacks are not worth reporting.

“Nobody is going to call Alabama police departments and say, ‘I am a victim of a hate crime,’ if they don’t think the police department is going to do something about it. So, police have to be able to know how to identify and respond to a hate crime, but you also have to have people willing to report,” he said.

Lieberman added there are several groups that already have disincentives to report hate crimes to the authorities, such as members of the gay community. “You may not be out at work or to your family, you’re beaten up outside a gay bar. Are you going to call the police? Maybe, if you think they are going to do something about it. But if you know they have reported zero hate crimes for the last five years or did not report for the past three years, then no, you understandably might not think it’s worth it to report it.”

The Knights & Orchids Inc. is an organization out of Selma that, according to its Facebook mission statement, is “founded and led by Black, queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming people supporting gender justice and LGBTQ visibility.” On three separate occasions in 2020, TKO’s front doors and windows were broken and several computers, televisions and other equipment were stolen. “At first, we thought this was someone in need. We quickly realized this was personal the second time,” said TKO Arts and Communications Director T.C. Caldwell.

Though they filed a report with the Selma Police Department after each incident, no perpetrators were caught, and Caldwell said TKO does not feel their case was handled appropriately.

“The night of the first robbery (around Thanksgiving) there were multiple homicides, so it was understandable that our robbery wasn’t priority,” said Caldwell. “But, (the police) filed a report one time. They didn’t file the second time, so there’s only one account of what has happened. This makes it hard for us to make insurance claims … . And to be clear, we didn’t want anything to happen to the person or people. We wanted to know who and why. We wanted to heal the harm by knowing who it was and to address the why. We can’t say we are about reform if we don’t extend grace.”

The Selma Police Department did not respond to BirminghamWatch’s request for a comment.

Caldwell said the lack of hate crime reporting is testament to how Alabama prioritizes minority groups and hate crimes.  “Our state doesn’t even recognize harm that happens to LGBTQ people, so we can’t expect them to report who and what they don’t respect. Especially Black trans women. Transgender people fight everyday just to be recognized as people, respect for our pronouns, and safety. Trans murders have jumped 266 percent from last year. At the end of the day, it’s because they don’t care,” Caldwell said.

On the other side of the coin, there are several reasons law enforcement agencies may not report data to the UCR. In an  FBI roundtable discussion featuring police officers and other representatives of law enforcement agencies, reasons listed ranged from variations in local, state and federal laws or definitions of hate crime, which make it difficult to know whether and when to classify something as a hate crime for UCR purposes; gaps in investigative training; lack of adequate staffing at local levels; personal implicit biases; and politics, meaning officers do not want to “classify certain groups as contributing to hate crime.”

Receiving “backlash” from individuals such as political leaders also was mentioned as a driving factor in lack of reporting. The report said in a footnote: “Political leaders — including mayors and police commissioners — may prefer to avoid the appearance of a sudden surge in hate crimes.”

What Can Be Done?

With the rise in hate crimes throughout the United States, communities are feeling a strong need to come together and support the groups being attacked.

Hate crimes against the black community, for example, have a long and heavy history of violence in Alabama that is still recurrent today.

A protest against racism in Washington, D.C. (Source: Ted Eytan, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In Macon County in June 2020, a cross was burned across Interstate-85 with racist graffiti present close by. The FBI looked into the case and classified it as a hate crime.

“I don’t think it was targeted towards one person. I think what they did it for was to put fear into people’s hearts and make them think something’s going on, you know, just to scare people,” said Macon County Sherriff Andre Brunson.

Lesser crimes are more common. For instance, when groups painted murals on boards used to cover windows broken during a protest in downtown Birmingham last year, one of George Floyd painted outside Wheelhouse Salon was vandalized with graffiti.

In the rise of COVID-19, hate-motivated attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have increased and the call for a stronger response from law enforcement is louder than ever.

In an opinion piece for USA Today, the co-founders of the civil rights group Stop Asian American/Pacific Islander Hate, Manjusha Kulnarni, Cynthia Choi, and Russell M. Jeung, offered their thoughts on the multiple ways hate crimes can be fought.

“Racism against Asian Americans is longstanding and complex and requires a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach,” they wrote. “We need resources dedicated to local communities, including community safety programs and in-language support for those in need of mental health, legal and immigration services. We need to build a strong civil rights infrastructure at the local level by fully funding community-based groups, which are often the first responders to incidents of hate.”

NBC News reported that in 2020, there were 3,800 incidents involving violence against Asian American citizens in the United States, with 68% of those attacks being against women.

Lieberman said law enforcement agencies should use this time as an “opportunity to work with the community and build trust.”

“Trust between police departments and the communities they’re supposed to protect and serve is fundamental. If you have agencies across the state that are missing the opportunity to demonstrate that they care about this issue, then you are missing the opportunity to build trust in the community and both sides of the table should care about that and it should be remedied,” he said.

At the same FBI roundtable discussion, law enforcement officers discussed ways law enforcement agencies could improve how hate crimes are handled.

Ideas included making “combating hate crimes a priority so the law enforcement agency sends the message that discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated; ensure sufficient resources are devoted to the prevention, investigation and reporting of hate crimes; ensure sufficient staff have the capacity to handle hate crimes investigation and reporting challenges; review agency management, organizational structure, personnel and information systems and identify changes necessary to prioritize hate crime enforcement; and provide new recruits and existing officers and deputies with training on hate crime and other related issues to ensure responding officers and deputies are trained to investigate and report hate crimes or incidents.”

Roundtable participants also suggested building community partnerships with law enforcement agencies and providing the public with accurate information, awareness, and resources available to the community and victims of hate crimes.

“Nobody is born hating. Hatred is a learned thing,” said Lieberman. “The way to respond to hatred is to demonstrate that this really matters.  If you can demonstrate that you are taking hate crimes seriously, then you are saying to others, ‘We are going to take this seriously and there’s going to be a deterrent impact.’”