Opinion: Acts of hate need to be documented
Smiling students from a multiethnic school wearing KKK hoods mugged for the camera. The photo went viral among students, flashing across Snapchat and Facebook. The image was photoshopped, but the implications were clear: white nationalism, or the threat of it, was active and present in the community.
A mother of one of the students emailed me about the incident. School officials responded in a communication to parents, calling the incident a “cowardly act of hate.” But the mother, concerned for the safety of her children, wanted the incident known. She needed someone beyond school officials to pay attention to it and acknowledge that it was a terrifying moment. But the reality is that she is the exception to the rule; most victims stay quiet.
Michigan has no system in place to document, catalogue and share information on incidents like this to assist communities in confronting and tackling this kind of prejudice, harassment and threat. It is time for that to change.
The only statistics kept by the state of Michigan on hate crimes are those tracked by the Michigan State Police. MSP does a fantastic job of putting together a report on hate-related criminal activity every year. In 2017, law enforcement agencies across Michigan reported 523 criminal acts motivated by hate. There were 605 victims of those incidents. One hundred sixty-five incidents happened in a victim’s home.
Digging a little deeper into the available information, the MSP annual report shows that 67 percent of the reported crimes were motivated by racial bias, 17 percent of the incidents were motivated by religious bias and people in the LGBT community were victims in 13 percent of the cases. Intimidation and stalking, damage to property and non-aggravated assaults topped the list of bias-motivated criminal charges MSP reported.
Despite the detailed data compiled annually by MSP, the report has flaws. In order to be recorded in official MSP reports, the incident must be, first and foremost, a criminal act that was motivated by bias on the part of the accused.
In addition, because this data is collected from police reports, reporting agencies must tick a box indicated it was a bias crime. Forgetting to tick that box is an easy paperwork error to make. Finally, the data is not reported until July of the year after the incident occurred. For instance, the data from 2017 included incidents from Jan. 1, 2017 to Dec. 31, 2017. It was released in July of 2018.
This lack of reporting, combined with the decentralized collection of data, makes it nearly impossible to identify trends. Canadian researcher Ifran Chaudhry runs a website documenting bias motivated incidents in Alberta which don’t rise to the level of crime. He told the CBC last summer that creating the database, combined with an interactive map of incidents, helps communities recognize that bias incidents are not happening somewhere else; they are happening in their own backyards.
Michigan does not have a system in place like Alberta’s, but we need one. It is difficult for any organization, the department included, to have access to the kind of immediate, up-to-date data sets that would provide an accurate real time snapshot of hate/bias incidents in Michigan.
If we are to address and stem the scourge of hate and bias incidents in Michigan -- criminal or not -- we must have a clearer understanding of what is happening in the immediate moment. It is time we pool private and public resources to create a one-stop database or depository of hate/bias incidents occurring anywhere in the state.
To reduce or even prevent an incident of hate from becoming something more serious and potentially deadly, we must empower victims to speak up and report these incidents in order to track them as they happen.
Agustin V. Arbulu is director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.