Experts on Camera

Dr. Janice Iwama: Hate crimes

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Hate crimes appear to be on the rise in the United States, and there have been a number of recent high-profile acts of violence committed against people of Asian descent.

SciLine Interviewed: Dr. Janice Iwama, an assistant professor of justice, law, and criminology at American University, where she studies factors that influence hate crimes and racial profiling, particularly against Latino and immigrant populations. See the footage and transcript from the interview below, or select ‘Contents’ on the left to skip to specific questions.

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Interview with SciLine

What are the current trends in hate crimes?


JANICE IWAMA: Based on the data that is currently being reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, we know that recently – in recent years, since about 2017, the number of hate crimes have gone up. Now, this is based on data that is being reported by law enforcement agencies on a voluntary basis. The data, of course, has only been collected since about 1990. A few states collected data prior to that. In an article that I co-authored with my colleague, Dr. Jack McDevitt, we actually talk about some of the challenges in using that particular data. The data, of course, since 1990, has slowly gone up in terms of the number of law enforcement agencies that are collecting and providing that – those statistics. But we assume that there is a very dramatic underestimate in the number of hate crimes that are actually being reported to the police and the number of hate crimes that are reported by police agencies to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Now, not all states are required to collect that information. That is actually on a state-by-state basis, according to state laws. Most states do, in fact, require their law enforcement agencies to collect, report and provide that information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But the level of training that law enforcement agencies receive in terms of how to identify whether a hate crime actually took place, what categories of individuals are actually protected according to the state laws varies dramatically across all 50 states and U.S. jurisdictions. And so when we talk about the fact that there has been an increase in the number of hate crimes, that data is based on the number of cases that are being reported to the FBI by law enforcement agencies on a voluntary basis. And therefore, our expectation is, according to my colleague and I, that this number is going to be probably only a small percentage of hate crimes that are actually taking place across the country.

What factors contribute to higher rates of hate crimes?


JANICE IWAMA: There are a number of factors that might influence whether or not a hate crime takes place. In two cases, of course, one that I talked about already – whether or not cases are actually being reported – if there happens to be a jurisdiction or a community where most citizens, most residents know, in fact, that hate crimes will not be taken seriously, then therefore, the likelihood that that hate crime takes place and has no penalty attached to it only leads to a greater likelihood of a hate crime taking place. Of course, there’s also factors that the individual, the community and, of course, more broadly, the state level that could influence whether or not a hate crime takes place. For example, in a study I did in Los Angeles County, which actually has one of the strongest hate crime laws, they require all of their law enforcement agencies across the state to update and maintain that training that they provide to law enforcement agencies. So our expectation is based on the efforts that are made at the state level, at the local level and even across different counties like L.A., that has the Commission on Human Relations that tries to support and encourage residents from reporting these hate crimes. We expect that that could lead to fewer hate crimes taking place.

Nevertheless, when we talk about individual-level factors that could influence the number of hate crimes that are actually taking place – is we start noticing in the study that I did that these hate crimes – where as we expect them to take predominantly, for example, anti-African American hate crimes, we would expect those to take place in white-majority communities. We actually find that many of those hate crimes also take place in very diverse communities. And so therefore, when we think about which areas should we be providing extra levels of law enforcement, we need to start taking a look at the data very carefully rather than using information from a different state and comparing apples to oranges. And so therefore, the number of different factors at both the policy level, the local level can influence whether or not a hate crime actually takes place and whether or not a hate crime is actually being reported.

What effects do these crimes have on communities?


JANICE IWAMA: Sure, hate crimes not only have an impact on individuals themselves, given the fact that it does reach the level of criminal offense, but they also affect communities that actually belong to that particular subgroup or communities in general who might feel tied to that particular individual who suffers the hate crime. So, for example, we’ve noticed from recent studies that hate crime victims have shown a very ripple effect in their communities. So any time that an individual is actually attacked based on the color of their skin, based on their religion, based on the language they spoke or who they were perceived to be, whether or not they actually belong to that group, community members felt that similar effect, particularly if they also belong to that subgroup that was being attacked. And therefore, we noticed that – should these hate crimes continue to take place that are being underreported or not being enforced against, we find that, for the most part, people are actually less likely to report a hate crime because of fear of retaliation, because of a fear that it won’t be taken seriously.

What, if anything, can be done to prevent people and communities from being victimized?


JANICE IWAMA: At the local level, local jurisdictions can actually ensure that their local law enforcement agencies are well-trained in being able to identify a hate crime, being able to ensure that that hate crime reaches a prosecutor. Prosecutors need to make sure that that type of crime is actually convicted, receives charges followed through in a courtroom. Judges need to make sure that those types of crimes actually receive the penalty enhancement according to the law, or if there is no penalty enhancement, to push for a penalty enhancement. Policymakers need to make sure that the hate crime laws that exist – or if they do not exist, there needs to be a hate crime law – if they do exist, that they need to be updated on an annual basis based on the level of hate crimes that are currently reported at the time. Local residents need to make sure that there are alternatives, should an individual not want to report a hate crime to the police. So a number of examples – several communities have actually approached churches who have allowed them to then receive reports of hate crimes based on their constituents because they are a trustworthy organization, or some local organization such as immigrant providers have also collected – started to collect that information.

Schools have started to identify one individual was responsible for collecting any type of bias incident or hate crime that takes place either on campus or right outside of the school or against one of their students or parents. And so there are several ways that we can identify how to prevent this from taking place or make sure that reporting is actually happening at the local level. At the state level, we need to make sure that our legislatures are aware of how many hate crimes are actually being reported. Are they being reported to the FBI as they should, or are we starting to see a pattern of zero hate crimes being reported when we know, in fact, that there is a hate crime that is actually taking place? At the federal level, we need to make sure that federal government – the federal government is aware that should a state decide not to prosecute something that is clearly a hate crime incident, that they will take a step in into making sure that they charge that individual for a hate crime because they clearly show enough evidence that it was, in fact, an incident, a criminal offense that reached the level of a bias incident. And those are the sort of three tiers that we need to make sure that both the local, state and federal government are fully aware of and behind in order to make sure we reduce the number of hate crimes that are taking place.

Is there anything else that I haven’t asked about that you’d like to say?


JANICE IWAMA: I think that, you know, as a data analyst, one of the important things to me – and this is a question I get all the time – is being sure that we understand what a serious situation, what a serious issue this is. Not only do we need to make sure that we are actually addressing the issue, but also providing some type of educational awareness that this is actually occurring, particularly as we see different moments in time throughout history where hate crimes are taking place against particular groups because of some type of political rhetoric or just public rhetoric in general that is taking place. For example, in recently with the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a number of different cases of anti-Asian rhetoric that was being spewed by numerous policymakers, by numerous public figures. And that is something that is clearly going to have an impact on whether or not hate crimes are taking place. Those are the types of events we need to prevent from taking place, particularly as we see several levels of social media campaigns against anti-Asians based on the fact that they believe that they are to blame because of COVID. These are the sort of things that we need to take seriously and we need to make sure to filter out for what information is being provided to the public.

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