Incidents of hate crimes in Utah rose significantly for the first time in two years in 2016, and based on complaints and investigations this year, the local FBI believes those numbers will continue to rise.
Last year, local law enforcement reported 66 incidents to the FBI, ranking Utah No. 23 out of the 49 reporting states and the District of Columbia, according to recently released 2016 hate crime statistics.
Those 66 incidents encompass 72 offenses, or individual crimes, reported in 2016. The most common was simple assault, with 22 instances, followed by vandalism at 18 and crimes against society — drug, gambling, prostitution, weapons violation or animal cruelty offenses — at 13.
Incidents rose from 47 in 2014 and 50 in 2015, aligning with a national upward trend.
Across the U.S., agencies reported 6,121 incidents of hate crimes last year. That number marked a five-year high.
Of those, most were committed against people because of their race, ethnicity or ancestry, followed by their religious affiliation and sexual orientation.
Despite ranking No. 23 out of 50 reporting locales, Michelle Pickens, FBI supervisory special agent with the civil rights squad at the Salt Lake City Field Office, said she considers Utah’s numbers to be on the lower side of the national trend.
She attributes that in-part to the Beehive State’s demographics.
“When you compare us to other states, we’re not very diverse. So our incidents may not be as high as they are in diverse states,” she said. “However, that does not mean that they don’t happen here.”
Based on her department’s work this year, she also said incidents will continue rising.
Hate by the numbers
The annual FBI hate crimes report doesn’t break down statewide incidents by the targeted group, but Pickens said Utah didn’t deviate from those nationwide statistics.
Nationally, more hate crimes — 1,739 across the U.S. — were committed against black people than any other race. Anti-Hispanic or Latino incidents ranked second, at 344 incidents.
Jewish people were most likely to face the brunt of hate crimes targeting a person’s religion, with 684 reported incidents, about 54 percent of the total. Those incidents involved 862 victims, up nearly 18 percent from 2015 . Muslims were the target of 307 incidents, a nearly 20 percent increase from the year before.
Following that trend, that means of the 47 hate crimes in Utah that targeted race, most were committed because the victim was black. Of the eight reported crimes committed against someone because of their religion, it’s likely the perpetrator was anti-Jewish.
Bias against sexual orientation was the second most prevalent among Utah hate crimes, with nine reported incidents, compared to 1,076 across the country. National statistics show gay men were the most common targets of those crimes, accounting for 675 instances.
While Utah numbers are climbing, FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric Barnhart said the bureau isn’t ready to posit why.
“Is that better reporting? Are we doing better outreach to communities, saying if you experience this crime report it,” Barnhart said. “That’s what we don’t know, because it’s so underreported, we don’t know if it’s a true spike or just better reporting.”
Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams attributed the increase to the U.S.’s current rancorous political climate and politicians who are “stirring up fear towards people who are different.”
“I think that when that kind of political rhetoric towards undocumented folks, or Muslim Americans, or gay and transgender people, when that kind of rhetoric gets racheted up, it gives permission for people to inflict violence on minority groups,” Williams said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s analysis of the FBI statistics also attributed the nationwide increase in hate crimes — particularly those committed against Muslims — to politics, specifically the election and rhetoric of President Donald Trump.
Among other causes, Equality Utah has advocated for an updated hate crimes statute to replace the current law, which doesn’t enumerate protected groups and is limited to misdemeanor-level offenses.
Since the statute was adopted in 1992, the law hasn’t resulted in an upheld conviction. Williams said that’s evidence it’s not working.
Williams said he hopes the recently released numbers encourage legislators to pass a more effective bill — and fast.
“This isn’t just for minorities. This is legislation that is needed for everybody,” he said. “We all have a race. We all have an ethnicity. We all have a sexual orientation and a gender identity, and a lot of us belong to a faith group.”
Hate crimes do get prosecuted in Utah, though. It just happens on the federal level.
A jury will hear one recent example Dec. 18 in U.S. District Judge Dee Benson’s courtroom. They will decide if Mark Porter violated his neighbor’s rights to fair housing.
The attack began on Nov. 3, 2016, when the 7-year-old boy, who is black, rode his scooter near Porter’s Draper apartment. Porter allegedly called the boy a racial slur and told him to go away.
The boy’s father came outside and told Porter not to speak to his son that way. That’s when Porter reportedly yelled, “You and your n***** son can get out of here,” and struck the man in the neck with a 1 million volt stun cane.
If convicted, Porter faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Federal statutes set a high bar for prosecution, meaning only the most violent — or potentially violent — crimes get tried, even if a lower-level offense was seemingly committed because of a person’s race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
An underreported problem
Despite recorded increases in incidents over the past five years, experts believe the instances are significantly underreported.
A Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of crime victimization from 2004 to 2015 found there are an average 250,000 hate crimes committed each year. Between 2011 and 2015, they found less than half of those crimes were reported to police.
Pickens said her department typically learns of cases through the news or local police — not victims.
“We wish more would come forward, but we think a lot of them are afraid to come forward,” she said.
Not only do victims infrequently report, but also many law enforcement agencies don’t share data with the FBI, typically because of a lack of resources and the relative difficulty of reporting to the FBI.
Of the 130 participating agencies in Utah, only 32 reported in 2016 — and that’s an increase from 2015, Barnhart said.
“How can we give these overworked, under-resourced departments an easy mechanism to give us that data?” he said.
The FBI is looking at incorporating NIBRS — the National Incident-Based Reporting System — into more agencies across the country to help solve the issue, Barnhart said. In 2015, only about one-third used the system.