Police Should Not Ignore Hate Crimes Now

Within days after the September 11 terror massacre at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, white supremacists blanketed Chicago suburbs with fliers that showed a picture of the burning trade center. The fliers fingered Arabs, immigrants, and Jews as the culprits, and urged whites to rally to the banner of God, country, the flag, and, course, white supremacy.

The obscene effort to turn the September 11 tragedy into a rallying cry for hate didn't totally fall on deaf ears. According to the Center for New Community, a Midwest faith-based group that tracks hate groups, dozens of new white nationalist groups have sprung up in 10 Midwestern states in the past year. They have vastly stepped up their recruitment efforts, particularly among young people.

Their hate campaign is paying deadly dividends. In its annual report on hate crimes, the FBI noted there were more hate attacks against minorities and gays than the year before. More than half of the attacks were racially motivated. And, as has been the pattern, since the FBI began compiling hate crime figures a decade ago, blacks again were the prime victims of hate attacks. Nearly 40 percent of the attacks were against them. But even the sharp increase in hate crimes doesn't tell the true story of hate violence in America.

Many victims do not report attacks out of fear or because they feel police and local officials will do little or nothing about them. Arab-American and Muslim leaders still bitterly complain that while the high-profile burning of a Mosque in Seattle and the murder of a Sikh shopkeeper in Arizona got massive national and media attention, scores of Muslims privately tell them of taunts, and ethnic slurs hurled at them and of rocks and bottles being tossed at mosques and community centers. Few of these attacks are reported to police.

But what if they report the attacks? There are still hundreds of police agencies that refuse to report hate crimes, or to label racially motivated hate crimes as hate crimes. If federal officials hadn't publicly pledged to crack-down on hate attacks against Muslims, police officials in the cities where Muslims and Sikhs were murdered, assaulted and their mosques burned would may not have automatically labeled them as hate crimes, and FBI officials may not have directed their local agents to vigorously pursue them as hate crimes.

The ignoring or downplaying of hate crimes by many police agencies gets worse each year. More than four hundred fewer police agencies reported hate crimes to the FBI in 2000 than in 1999. And the number that reported them in 1999 dropped from those reporting in 1998. The official indifference by many police agencies to hate crimes insures that federal officials can't accurately gauge the magnitude of hate violence. This fosters the false public impression that hate crimes have diminished or are non-existent.

While the police agencies that don't report or minimize hate crimes bear some of the blame for the laxity in not branding hate crimes as hate crimes, so do federal officials. When Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, it compelled the FBI to collect figures on hate violence. However, it did not compel police agencies to report them. Record keeping on hate crimes is still left up to the discretion of local police chiefs and city officials.

Many don't bother compiling them because they regard hate crimes as a politically loaded minefield that can tarnish their image and create even more racial friction. They see no need to allocate more resources to enable police to recognize and combat hate violence. Many police agencies in America haven't established hate task force units, or set specific procedures for dealing with hate crimes.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1998 was aimed at closing these loopholes and increasing the types of hate crimes prosecuted, and the penalties for them. But the measure is still frozen in the Senate. With Congress fixated on passing and bank-rolling the wave of anti-terrorism laws, with provisions that come dangerously close to green lightening racial profiling and sanctioning civil liberties violations against Arab-Americans, expanded hate crimes legislation is dead in the water. While President Bush and Attorney-General John Ashcroft publicly condemn hate attacks against Muslims, given their stubborn past hostility to tougher hate crimes laws, there's little reason to expect them to do an about face and prod Congress to pass the bill.

The hate mongers that papered Chicago suburbs with fliers blaming the World Trade Center attack on minorities and Jews also put American lives at risk. FBI and police agencies should make tracking them the same high priority they make tracking foreign terrorists in America.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com.

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