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July 15, 2004

Hate Crime Stats Not Always Precise

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community_briefs/article/hate_crime_stats_not_always_precise_20040716

The Council on American-Islamic Relations' (CAIR) new report titled, "Unpatriotic Acts," warns that acts of hate against Muslims in the United States skyrocketed in 2003. At face value, the numbers are grim: CAIR notes a 70 percent increase in "reports of harassment, violence and discriminatory treatment" against Muslims in the United States between 2002 (602 acts) and 2003 (1,019 acts). That also represents a 300 percent increase between the years 2000 and 2003.

Those numbers, however, do not entirely speak for themselves. Tracking hate is a complex process; statistics may be influenced by outside variables. That's especially true since the CAIR report also includes noncriminal acts of discrimination, sometimes called "hate incidents." CAIR is not alone in using this methodology: Some groups tracking anti-Semitism do the exact same thing.

For example, to reach the number 1,019, CAIR lumped the 91 recorded violent or property hate crimes against Muslims in 2003 (e.g. assault, vandalism) with all other manner of reported bigotry, some more serious than others. This sort of noncriminal hate can take the form of religious profiling, discriminatory application of the law or denial of services.

CAIR, however, notes that even these nonviolent cases could conceivably be brought before a court of law.

"A lot of those incidents are actionable, although they're not violent criminal acts," Mohammed Nimer, director of research at CAIR, told The Journal.

On the other hand, in cases that are never prosecuted by the authorities, there may be no police reports, medical records or witnesses to corroborate the claims or measure their severity.

"When I look at the cases, if the allegation has the 'what, when, where, why and how,' and the information is specific, I would include it," said Nimer about the report. "The rejection rate [was] between 40 percent and 60 percent."

While many of the criminal offenses in "Unpatriotic Acts" are obviously eggregious, the criteria used to measure other incidents are less clear. For example, "Unpatriotic Acts" includes this record: "On Jan. 1, an unknown man confronted a Muslim couple at [a] shopping center in ... Maryland and asked them whether they were planting a bomb in the area."

"I think that once you move beyond what constitutes a hate crime according to the law, it's a pretty vast universe that you're trying to measure," said Marshall Wong, hate crime coordinator for the L.A. County Commission on Human Relations, which also publishes a report on hate crime statistics.

"There must be a consistent measure against which [noncriminal] complaints are set," said David Lehrer of Community Advocates, Inc., a local civil rights group. "Depending on the headlines of the day, and what the mood of the public is, you may get a whole variety of complaints, and 90 percent of them may have no merit whatsoever. There has to be some rigor [in order] to determine whether there is any veracity to the charges that have been made."

Like CAIR, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also reports hate incidents, despite the difficulties.

"We keep track [of hate incidents] to suggest trends, but we are fully aware that the final results of such a report can be impacted by factors that are not scientific, like the reporting," said Amanda Susskind, regional director of the ADL. Susskind noted that an appalling crime or other event can shock a community into realizing the importance of reporting, and they may flood the phone lines, indicating a spike in discrimination incidents.

That same amount of bigotry, however, may have simply gone unreported in the community for years. Wong cited an example of this in the massive spike of reported hate crimes against gay men in September and October of 2002.

"It coincided [with] a very highly publicized attack on a West Hollywood resident that occurred on Sept. 1, 2002, so it's highly likely that during that period of time, gay men who were victimized felt an obligation to report [it] in larger numbers," he said.

Nimer acknowledges those inherent variables: "That's very hard to control. [The number of] CAIR offices have increased tremendously since Sept. 11, and may have contributed to community-wide reporting."

Hate crime numbers, compared to hate incident numbers, may be slightly less susceptible to these reporting variables since the government can prosecute and record the underlying crime before the hate-fueled motivation is alleged.

When hate crime numbers are separated from all the noncriminal reports in "Unpatriotic Acts," CAIR's study reveals that only 49 more anti-Muslim hate crimes occurred in 2003 than 2002 in the entire United States (91 crimes, up from 42).

Nimer emphasized the solidity of that measured increase: "Even before CAIR became an organization with 25 offices, most of those [violent crimes] were very well documented, so you cannot say the CAIR report indicates more hate crime because CAIR is more capable of recording [it]."

On the other hand, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer released a report on July 8 detailing an approximately 10 percent decrease in statewide hate crimes in 2003. Though no data on crimes against Muslims in specific was noted, the category of crimes called "Anti-Other Ethnicity/National Origin," which includes crimes against Arab or Middle Eastern people, decreased by 19 percent since 2002 (199 to 161). According to that report, blacks and homosexuals are the No.1 and No. 2 targeted groups in California, respectively.

But, in one final layer of complexity, Wong also noted that even hate crime reporting has built-in flaws: "Some law enforcement agencies in entire cities are not aggressively pursuing investigations with hatred as a motivation," he said. "You may in fact see that those jurisdictions labeled as hotbeds of hate crime activity, because they report larger numbers, may simply be doing their jobs better."

"Those are all variables," he said. "That's why we have to be very careful about what we read into the numbers."

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