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Probe: Cops lax in sharing hate crime reports with FBI

Christina A. Cassidy
Associated Press

Bogalusa, La. — The knock on the door, strong and quick, jolted Barbara Hicks Collins awake. It was the middle of the night. Someone must be in trouble, she thought. She flung open her front door to the shocking sight of her car engulfed in flames.

Investigators later determined someone had deliberately set fire to her Mercedes and also tried to burn down the one-story brick house she shared with her mother in this eastern Louisiana town, once known as a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity.

Hicks Collins, a black woman, had no doubt the fire — set on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2012 — was racially motivated. Her father had been a prominent civil rights leader who filed lawsuits that desegregated local schools and forced police to protect protesters, and her family remained active in the community.

Despite the circumstances, the case was never counted in the nation’s annual tally of hate crimes. In fact, neither the police department nor the local sheriff has filed a hate crime report with the FBI since at least 2009.

And that’s not unusual, an investigation by The Associated Press found. The AP identified more than 2,700 city police and county sheriff’s departments across the country that have not submitted a single hate crime report for the FBI’s annual crime tally during the past six years — about 17 percent of all city and county law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Advocates worry that the lack of a comprehensive, annual accounting disguises the extent of bias crimes at a time of heightened racial, religious and ethnic tensions. The nation was stunned last June when nine black parishioners were shot dead at a Charleston, South Carolina, church, in an attack labeled a hate crime, and community groups have reported a notable increase in violence against Muslims and mosques in the wake of last year’s terror acts in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Gay and transgender people also are regular targets.

A better accounting of hate crimes, the FBI and other proponents say, would not only increase awareness but also boost efforts to combat such crimes with more resources for law enforcement training and community outreach.

“We need the reporting to happen,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached. “Without a diagnosis, we don’t know how serious the illness is. And without a diagnosis, there is no prescription. And without a prescription, there is no healing.”

Filing reports for the federal count is voluntary and guidelines call for reports to be submitted even if they list zero hate crimes, a signal to both the FBI and the community that local departments are taking such crimes seriously.

FBI Director James Comey has called on all agencies to do a more aggressive job tracking hate crimes, and also has initiated training sessions on bias attacks for hundreds of law enforcement officers nationwide.

In response to an inquiry about Hicks Collins’ case, officials with both the Bogalusa Police and the Washington Parish Sheriff’s Department said they did not know hate crime information was not being reported and blamed clerical errors.

Four years later, no arrests have been made in the attack on her house and the state fire marshal’s office, which ultimately conducted the investigation, said it was unable to determine whether the setting of the fires constituted a hate crime or not.

Under FBI guidelines, an incident should be reported as a suspected hate crime if a “reasonable and prudent” person would conclude a crime was motivated by bias. Among the criteria for evaluation is whether an incident coincided with a significant holiday or date, specifically citing the King holiday. A suspect need not be identified to meet the threshold for reporting.

Between 5,000 and 7,000 hate crime incidents are catalogued each year in the FBI report, with nearly half of all victims in recent years targeted because of their race.