Officials, experts strategize how to combat hate crime increase in Philly, PA
Hate crimes aren’t like other crimes. They affect entire communities and groups of people, their impact going beyond just the direct victims. They instill fear and worry in neighborhoods, and serve to isolate groups of people according to race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or some other aspect of a person’s identity.
This is why the trends reported in the FBI’s 2017 Hate Crime Statistics are particularly problematic, say local Philadelphia experts.
Even more worrying - they may paint far from a full picture.
The federal law enforcement agency documented a 17 percent increase in hate crimes nationwide in 2017, which comes after upticks of 5 percent and 7 percent in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
In Pennsylvania, 80 hate crimes were committed last year, up from 61 the year before. In Philadelphia, they more than doubled, rising from 18 to 40.
While the numbers are indicative of a widely acknowledged upward trend in hate crimes, they don’t entirely capture the magnitude of the problem, explained Rue Landau, the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR), which tracks hate crimes and bias incidents in the city.
“The FBI numbers are historically always very low,” Landau told AL DÍA. “Everybody in my field of civil rights, we all dismiss the national numbers because they don’t accurately reflect what we see and experience on the ground.”
The FBI relies on voluntary reporting from state agencies when compiling their numbers. Not all state agencies participate, and those that do may not accurately code or report hate crimes as such, Landau said.
In the latest report, for instance, large cities such as Miami, Las Vegas and Indianapolis didn’t report a single hate crime.
The likelihood of this actually being the case is “basically next to zero,” according to Nancy Baron-Baer, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)’s Regional Director for Eastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey, and Delaware.
“People need to understand that these [FBI] figures, as well as ours, are based solely on reported incidents,” Baron-Baer told AL DÍA.
She noted that, in addition to the voluntary nature of reporting by state agencies for the FBI report, there are also barriers that may discourage victims from reporting such crimes in the first place. Certain individuals, whether black, or Latino, or LGBTQ, among other marginalized groups, might not feel comfortable reporting such crimes due to distrust of their local law enforcement.
“There’s no way that everyone in the United States who was a victim of an incident has reported,” she added.
Raw numbers aside, the experts aren’t surprised by the demonstrated rise in hate crime activity.
“We happen to be at a time in our history when society is increasingly divided and divisive, and where people who may have felt that they could not come forward with their hatred of others feeling more emboldened, and feeling that it’s okay to come forward, it’s okay to be bigoted and prejudiced,” Baron-Baer said.
“I think that people feel more emboldened because they haven’t been called out sufficiently, and there seems to be an embracing [of that] by different individuals in our government,” she added.
Landau, meanwhile, ties the rise in hate crimes directly back to the 2016 presidential election, which the data supports.
In the two years since Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, the PCHR has investigated 184 reported hate crimes or bias incidents, according to Landau. Of these, 103 have been confirmed as such, and 65 remain unconfirmed as to their motive. Just 16 have been deemed not hate-related.
Before the election, the PCHR tracked one or two reports of such activity each month. Now, it’s three to five.
“We can’t attribute [the increase] to one particular reason, except that since the November 2016 election our numbers have gone up dramatically,” Landau said.
The FBI’s 2017 report covers the first full year of the Trump presidency. Numbers had been on the rise for two years before, too, but last year’s increase was much more pronounced.
“Unfortunately, we have seen a connection that, when there’s more violent and hateful rhetoric and action happening in Washington and around the country, things get worse here in Philadelphia,” Landau continued. “We need the hate-filled messages and actions to end in order to reverse the sad and dramatic effects that we’re seeing here on the streets in Philadelphia.”
State Representative Kevin Boyle, who has tried for several years to introduce more comprehensive hate crimes legislation in Pennsylvania, also points to the White House for setting the tone on accepting bigotry.
“During the Republican primaries, [Trump] was endorsed by figures associated with the white nationalist movement, and also David Duke, and then refused to repudiate the KKK,” Boyle told AL DÍA. “It’s unfortunate the new day we’re living in, in 2018 as it pertains to the acceptance of intolerance as it comes from the White House.”
“He’s certainly willing to play and benefit with the white nationalist movement,” Boyle added.
The FBI documented an even higher 24 percent spike in anti-Hispanic hate crimes. Only anti-Semitic crimes rose more dramatically, by 37 percent - and the ADL’s numbers showed this increase to be even higher, at 43 percent, Baron-Baer noted.
Again, Landau points to the policies and rhetoric coming from the White House as an essential factor.
“There’s a trend related to all of the anti-immigrant policies put forward by Washington that has led to people’s increased fear of immigrant communities, particularly Latinos and Spanish-speaking communities,” Landau said.
“When fear and exclusion are being promoted at the top, then hateful people follow that example on the street,” she added.
Not only are anti-Latino hate crimes more dramatically increasing, they also tend to be more severe in nature, Landau noted.
“What we’ve seen is that hate crimes against Latinos and immigrants often go beyond name calling and intimidation. They are also targets of assaults and robberies, and other acts of violence.”
Vandalism has been the most common hate crime offense in Philadelphia, according to PCHR numbers - think painted swastikas, racist or xenophobic graffiti, and intimidating notes left on car windshields. In parts of the city, too, there have been more reports of flyers put out by white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, including the KKK, to recruit for their respective organizations, Landau said.
A third of recorded hate crimes in the FBI report involved vandalized property. Another quarter involved intimidation, and one fifth, “simple assault.”
Amid the increase, the experts and certain public officials aren’t standing idly by.
The PCHR has created an anonymous hotline and a hate crimes factsheet. They have also organized the Philadelphia Civil Rights Rapid Response Team, a coordinated effort of local, state and federal law enforcement to respond to bias incidents and hate crimes. Finally, just this month, they released an action guide to help the public understand what hate crimes are, and how to handle them.
The ADL, meanwhile, is working to bolster hate crimes legislation in Pennsylvania. Their efforts extend nationwide, too, as five states have no hate crime laws at all.
While Pennsylvania currently has hate crime legislation, it should be improved upon, Baron-Baer said. As it stands today, crimes motivated by race, ethnicity or religion are covered by the state law, but crimes committed against someone because of their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or a disability are not.
Boyle has previously introduced hate crimes legislation to broaden the scope of groups that receive protection under the law.
His bill, which is co-sponsored by Republican Tom Murt, would expand Pennsylvania’s current law to incorporate sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, disabilities and ancestry within the scope of ethnic intimidation offenses.
“Number one, it gives law enforcement an additional tool in charging someone who is a bigot and attacks someone based on their background,” Boyle said.
“With this increased epidemic of hate crimes in the last few years, we as a society need to show that we’re unified against crimes of hate,” he continued. “We need to do all we can to, as a society, show that that form of hate is not acceptable.”
Boyle blames right-wing Republicans in the Pennsylvania Congress for stifling his previous attempts at getting the legislation passed. He’s more hopeful about getting his bill on the books when he reintroduces it next legislative term.
“I’m optimistic that we now have more Democrats in the Pennsylvania State House and State Senate, and I think that many Republicans, particularly in tolerant areas, they should have seen the message from the electorate in the [midterm] elections on November 6th,” Boyle said.
“Hopefully they will get around the idea of trying to protect all people from violence and bigotry and hate,” he added.
In the meantime, Landau and Baron-Baer don’t expect the trend to abate any time soon.
“After the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, which was the culmination of a terrible week in our country where we saw pipe bombs sent to reporters and government officials throughout the country, and also African-American people killed in Kentucky, we had more hate crimes and bias incidents reported to the PCHR in one week than we had ever experienced in the past,” Landau said, referring to the late October incidents.
“So, I’m not optimistic that the numbers will decrease.”