FBI fails to report its own numbers; former agent calls data ‘incomplete and unreliable’
By: Jamie Grey and Lee Zurik, InvestigateTV
February 4, 2019
JACKSON, MS (InvestigateTV) – A group of white people looking to “f— with some n—–s” murdered a black man in a hotel parking lot here, beating him and running him over with a car.
In Atlanta, gang members beat a 20-year-old gay man with an abandoned car tire as he left a grocery store, yelling homophobic epithets throughout the attack.
A declared white supremacist and separatist attempted to bomb a Martin Luther King, Jr. unity march in Spokane using a homemade explosive loaded with fishing weights and rat poison.
The people responsible for those crimes all went to prison, admitting they attacked because of hate. But InvestigateTV discovered that none of those crimes were counted in federal hate crime data.
The Hate Crime Statistics Act mandates hate crime data collection, but there are many crimes that aren’t being counted – many because police aren’t reporting them into the federal program.
The FBI, which is responsible for collecting and reporting of these crimes, doesn’t even report its own data as required by law.
InvestigateTV analyzed the hate crime data and found multiple cases the FBI worked on, from murder to vandalism, that do not appear in national numbers.
The problem with leaving out crimes or failing to identify where they are happening is that prevention becomes extremely difficult, said Cynthia Deitle, a former FBI agent who spent two decades with the agency, including 10 years working specifically on hate crimes in New York City. She now trains law enforcement officers and prosecutors about hate crimes.
“If I were a chief or a sheriff or special agent in charge at the FBI, that’s what would worry me… [that] I don’t know. I don’t know what’s happening in my jurisdiction or my territory,” she said. “I don’t know if I have a problem that’s going to manifest itself in a Dylann Roof in Charleston. I don’t know because no one’s given me data I can rely upon.”
Murder in Mississippi
First, an electrical shock from a stun gun blasted her chest. Then a 75th Ranger Regiment pocket knife was repeatedly driven into her body. She ran, but she couldn’t escape. Her killer delivered what he thought was the final blow to the back of her head and walked away.
Mercedes Williamson wasn’t ready to stop fighting and stumbled around the rural property in southern Mississippi, looking for an escape from where she’d been taken. Then the killer saw her and returned with a hammer. He hit her again and again until she was gone.
The man went to his father’s house on the property and showered. He covered Williamson’s lifeless body in debris, tossed his weapons into the Mississippi River, and burned his clothing covered in the 17-year-old’s blood.
Williamson’s gruesome death on May 29, 2015, detailed in court audio recordings, came at the hands of someone she loved: Josh Vallum. Her friends from back home in Alabama said Williamson met Vallum on a dating website in early summer 2014.
Vallum and Williamson had secrets when the relationship began. Vallum was in a gang and had been in prison; Williamson was a transgender girl.
“I know eventually she was going to tell him the truth, and then she did, and he was all up for it. He was all up for it. He didn’t care,” said Lexy Shay, who met Williamson nearly a decade ago through mutual friends.
But, Shay knew what prosecutors affirmed in court, Vallum’s gang, the Latin Kings, would care.
“He was in the gang, and if they find out that he was associated with somebody that is like gay or transgender, they would either kick him out of the gang, or he had to kill her,” Shay said.
According to the court recordings, Vallum kept Williamson’s gender identity a secret from family, friends, and his gang during the couple’s romantic and sexual relationship that lasted for several months. But in May 2015, prosecutors said, Vallum got a call. Someone in his gang knew, and he had to, in his words, “handle the business.” The next day, he picked Williamson up in Alabama and drove her to his father’s property just across the state line in Mississippi to kill her.
“He didn’t like for the fact that she was transgender. He didn’t accept her for who she really was or who she wanted to be. Nobody did,” Shay said.
Vallum, 27 at the time, ultimately turned himself into the sheriff’s department and pleaded guilty to a federal hate crime and was sentenced to 49 years in prison.
Williamson’s death, despite being adjudicated as a hate crime in court, does not appear in the federal hate crimes statistics from 2015. In fact, statewide, Mississippi police agencies reported zero hate crimes that year.
“It was a hate crime, and I know it was a f—ing hate crime,” Shay said when InvestigateTV told her Williamson’s death was not counted.
The George County Sheriff’s Office, which was the original agency on the case, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the FBI.
All those zeroes: ‘There’s no way it’s true. It can’t be.’
“They talk about all these numbers as if they’re accurate, as if they’re correct – and they’re not,” said Deitle, the former FBI agent.
The reason those numbers can’t be accurate, Deitle said, is because of a huge lack of participation in reporting by some departments and undercounting by others.
While Congress passed a law in 1990 requiring the federal government to collect hate crime numbers, it failed to require local and state agencies to actually turn in those numbers.
Data from 2017, the most recent year available, showed that around 90 percent of the 18,000 or so law enforcement agencies in the U.S. reported to the FBI. But the vast majority of them – more than 87 percent – reported that they had zero hate crimes.
“Is the zero true? Do they think it’s true? There’s no way that can be true,” Deitle said.
Another indication of a vast undercount comes from the Department of Justice itself, which released a report in June 2017 stating that U.S. residents experienced an average of 250,000 hate crimes each year from 2004 to 2015.
Yet the FBI’s hate crime statistics only documented between about 5,500 and 7,800 incidents in each of those same years.
The justice department study also found that about half of the crimes it counted were not reported to police, and thereby would not be counted in the FBI data.
Deitle said she’s heard all kinds of reasons for not participating: some chiefs don’t prioritize reporting, others choose not to participate because it’s not mandatory and some agencies’ incident reports – which are fed into crime databases – lack a way for an officer to mark a crime that was caused by hate.
Overall, 895 more agencies participated in 2017 as compared to 2016.
Watch the video below to learn about two unsolved murders in Mississippi and Louisiana. Both transgender women killed do not appear in the federal hate crime statistics, though their friends and family believe the murders were motivated by hate.
The Jackson Police Department in Mississippi has not reported any information to the federal database since the first quarter of 2014, when it submitted a count of zero hate crimes. Spokesman Sergeant Roderick Holmes said it’s not a decision to not participate, but rather, there hasn’t been anything to report.
“If it’s something that we would consider it a hate crime, then we would deem it that if necessary and report it to the FBI,” Holmes said. “We don’t have a lot of crimes that come through here that would be deemed a hate crime.”
But InvestigateTV has found incidents with underpinnings of hate in Jackson – from the brutal murder of James Anderson in 2011 at the hands of white supremacists to vandalism at a synagogue in 2013. The common threads in both cases: Neither was reported in the FBI data and the FBI was listed as an investigating agency in both.
Feds fail to report their own cases
The Anderson slaying highlights another problem with the data: When multiple agencies investigate, particularly if federal agents come in, crimes may be left out of the count.
That’s because the FBI itself isn’t a participating agency.
“The FBI is in a really awkward position of encouraging law enforcement agencies to report their hate crime data. Because the FBI doesn’t report either,” Deitle said.
But – unlike local agencies where participation is voluntary, the FBI is required by law to submit crime data.
Under the Uniform Federal Crime Reporting Act of 1988, federal departments and agencies “which routinely investigate complaints of criminal activity, shall report details about crime within their respective jurisdiction” to the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), which includes the hate crime reporting program.
Despite that mandate, which the FBI acknowledges on its own website, InvestigateTV found the FBI does not submit its own data to the hate crime statistics program. The FBI has discussed coming into compliance, and while it started to report some very limited numbers related to hate crimes, it stopped again two years ago.
The tiptoe toward coming into compliance began several years ago when the Department of Justice announced a group of initiatives – including one for the FBI to begin reporting its crime data.
In 2014 and 2015, the FBI did publish some data, including its hate crimes arrest numbers; however, it did not release the numbers as part of the hate crimes statistics program collection. It also failed to report the same detailed data local agencies send to the program. For example, local agencies report information like the type of crime committed and what bias motivated the offense. The FBI reported none of that.
In 2016 and 2017, the FBI once again released zero data related to its hate crimes investigations.
When Deitle worked on hate crimes as an agent, she said she asked her supervisors why the FBI didn’t report. She said that her supervisors told her that the crimes likely were reported by local law enforcement agencies who first investigated – “but there’s no way to know,” she said.
Some other high-profile cases identified by InvestigateTV that do not appear in the federal hate crime statistics fit the same profile of the Anderson slaying in Jackson: Multiple agencies, including the FBI, were involved.
For example, the Department of Justice handled the hate crimes case in Charlottesville, Virginia where James Fields, Jr. plowed into a crowd of protesters, injuring multiple people and killing one woman on Aug. 12, 2017.
He was indicted on 29 counts of violating the federal hate crime law and, at the state level, charged with murder, of which he was eventually convicted. Yet his crimes that led to the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer do not appear in the federal hate crimes statistics.
“There’s obviously a huge flaw in the reporting system. It was brought to my attention that that statistic was a zero probably right after the report was released,” said Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro.
The FBI repeatedly acknowledges how important hate crime data collection is for communities, including in this 2015 hate crime training manual: “National statistics have resulted in greater awareness and understanding of the true dimensions of the problem nationwide. Those charged with the enforcement of the law will be better able to quantify their resource needs and direct available resources to the areas where they will have the most effectiveness.”
For Bro, that’s exactly why she wants to see more accurate reporting and is talking to different agencies about how to make that happen.
“There’s truth in history. If you can’t tell the truth, then you can’t really deal with the effects,” Bro said. “Already younger generation people are unaware of this event that’s happened. So from a history standpoint, I can see an event like this being completely erased.”
The FBI has declined multiple requests for interviews and information for more than four months. In 2014, the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies said in its first federal data report that they found it difficult to tailor the way each documents crime incidents to the mandated reporting system.
Agencies making changes
Some agencies are making changes in how they report in an attempt to put forward more accurate numbers. For example, the Miami-Dade County Police Department reported one hate crime in 2017 and faced questions from reporters about that seemingly low number. Once officers examined their reports, they found three cases that should have been reported.
“We realized the statistical data wasn’t really being captured properly during that time,” Sgt. Carlos Rosario said.
The department felt accurate collection was important, Rosario said, so in January 2018, the department added a new “hate crime flag” to its electronic incident report used by officers. Those flags help auto-populate those crimes into the system, ensuring they are reported to state and federal databases correctly.
“In no way did that change the way we investigated the crimes… it was just a matter of the numerical way we calculated the crime,” Rosario said.
Miami-Dade has also started posting and updating its hate crime reports publicly on its website.
Additionally, Rosario said the department is reinforcing its hate crimes reporting procedures with its investigators to make sure they are correctly reported. In 2018, the department had a total of six hate crimes cataloged.
The Department of Justice has also committed to a new Hate Crimes Enforcement and Prevention Initiative. In October, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced part of that initiative will include “reviewing the accuracy” of the reports of zero hate crimes by the majority of police departments.
Additionally, the National Institute of Justice has awarded a grant for $840,000 to conduct a national hate crimes survey, looking at issues including low rates of hate crime reporting at local agencies. The goal, said Rosenstein, is to improve reporting to “more effectively target our resources.”
States hate crimes laws – or lack thereof – also contribute to reporting problems. As of January, 29 states had laws requiring some form of data collection on hate crimes.
The Mississippi ACLU has been pushing for expanded hate crime laws, and its executive director said stronger laws would mean better data.
“Unfortunately in the state of Mississippi, there is no standardized guidance that is given or required of these various law enforcement agencies as to how they are to maintain data,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the Mississippi ACLU.
Right now, the law only includes enhanced penalties for crimes motivated by bias against a first responder or a person’s race, religion or gender, but no other categories.
Riley-Collins said if more categories were covered or if there was a law that went beyond enhancing other criminal statutes, it’s more likely officers and their departments would report more hate crimes into the federal program. That better data, she said, would then lead to better assessment of problems and solutions in the state.
“When we continue to move forward in the abstract, then we don’t know the impact of policy on community. So I think having the data will inform policymakers, and so that’s only a positive for the state of Mississippi,” Riley-Collins said.
Some advocates would also like to see hate crime reporting become mandatory nationwide by adding it to the federal Hate Crimes Reporting Act or the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
“One of those federal laws, I would love to see it amended by Congress and by the administration to include mandatory reporting, to force all 18,000 law enforcement agencies [to] report their hate crime data to the FBI,” Deitle said.
Congressman Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, said he is working with other lawmakers to consider a federal mandate for reporting – both for the FBI and local agencies – and to provide resources to help them.
“You understand a lot of our law enforcement agencies are small, two or three-person departments,” Thompson said. “Sometimes just the collecting of data and reporting it is a real challenge. So I think if we required it on some instances, we would have to provide some support to make sure that not only did the data get reported but that it was accurate.”
One way to enforce a data collection requirement would be to tie grant funding to the program. Currently, the federal Justice Assistance Grant program requires a minimum participation in the federal Uniform Crime Report’s violent crime data collection. The JAG program is the main source of federal funding to state and local jurisdiction justice programs, so the financial motivation to participate is strong. Departments use those funds for all kinds of things – from hiring more officers to buying body cameras.
Deitle said making reporting mandatory would send a message to victims as well, that they can trust their cases will be taken seriously.
For people such as Lexy Shay, left knowing her friend Mercedes Williamson’s murder did not count in the nation’s picture of hate crimes, leaving data off the table means leaving out much more than a number – but a victim and their story.
“It makes me feel that Mercedes probably would never get her justice,” Shay said. “She was like everything to me. She was not my best friend. She was more like my sister, and I miss her to this day.”
Rachel DePompa of WWBT contributed to this report.
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