New FBI data show that Utah agencies saw an increase in reported hate crimes in 2017 — aligning with a national trend — but mistakes in that data may mean the state’s numbers remained stagnant or even declined.
The 2017 FBI hate crime numbers show that Utah law enforcement agencies reported 78 incidents, up from 66 last year. However, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of the purported increase shows at least seven agencies reported different — and often lower — numbers to state Department of Public Safety.
Based on the lower numbers reported to the state by those agencies — the Davis County Sheriff’s Office, the Utah Transit Authority and police departments in Layton, Salt Lake City, South Jordan, St. George and Ogden — the state’s actual total could be as low as 61 incidents, a nearly 8 percent decrease.
The FBI data come from 27 reporting agencies, while the state report used data from 15 Utah law enforcement agencies.
No matter which number turns out to be the correct state total, hate crimes are underreported in Utah, said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Michelle Pickens, based in Salt Lake City. She said she expects the count will increase, along with national numbers, in coming years, as her department trains more law enforcement agencies and community members to recognize possible hate crimes.
"I love living here. I think it’s a wonderful community, and it’s safe for my children, all our children, relative to other areas, but that does not mean we do not have problems that everybody else has too,” Pickens said.
The number of hate crimes reported nationally increased in 2017 by approximately 17 percent from the year before, moving from 6,121 to 7,175, without accounting for any mistakes in Utah reporting.
Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Marissa Cote said the differences in reporting occurred after officials with her agency noticed an abnormally high number of reports from law enforcement when compiling their annual state crime report.
DPS asked agencies to check the data, and many came back with lower numbers, she said. The mistakes were mostly “clerical,” she said, and were corrected in the DPS crime report. Based on the smaller number of agencies, that report shows a 38 percent decline in hate crimes from the year before.
However, the initial inflated numbers had already been keyed into the database the FBI uses to compile its hate crime statistics.
The methods the FBI and DPS use to classify an incident as a hate crime differ, which also may account for some of the differences. DPS says its hate crime totals “reflect the number of victims in an incident, not the number of incidents,” according to its report. The FBI classifies an incident as a hate crime if one or more related offenses were allegedly motivated by hate.
The largest known discrepancy comes from UTA data. Officials there are refuting 12 of the incidents listed in the FBI report.
UTA spokesman Carl Arky said someone mistakenly classified 15 incidents as hate crimes before the agency initially reported statistics to the DPS Bureau of Criminal Identification. UTA personnel later “went back, caught it, corrected it [and] sent it back” to the bureau in June. Those corrections, he said, didn’t make it into the report the FBI recently released.
Arky said UTA reported three hate crimes, which are reflected accurately in the DPS report.
The FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Service, reached through Utah FBI spokeswoman Sandra Baker, has not responded to the Tribune’s requests for comment on the data.
This year’s FBI statistics do appear to reflect a change from what Pickens called an outlier in Utah’s 2016 data — when the second leading alleged motivation behind hate crimes in the state was sexual orientation.
The FBI classifies hate crimes by the bias that allegedly motivated them, identified as race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender and gender identity. National data trends show race as the most common motivator, followed by religion and then sexual orientation.
In 2016, most of Utah’s reported hate crimes, at 47 incidents, were allegedly perpetrated against people because of their race, ethnicity or ancestry — but that was followed by 9 reports involving sexual orientation and then religion, which tallied one less report.
In 2017, Utah’s numbers reflected the national trends: There were 51 incidents motivated by race, with 15 based on religion and eight attributed to sexual orientation. Even accounting for the possible reporting mistakes, those rankings stand.
While the FBI doesn’t further break down bias statistics — such as by specific races or religions — Pickens said from what she’s seen, Utah aligns with the rest of the country.
Nationally, most reported hate crimes that were racially motivated were committed against black people; most motivated by religious prejudice were against Jewish people; and most based on a person’s sexual orientation were against gay people.
Pickens said she’s also noticing something else: Hate crimes are more “hands-on” than they once were. While she used to deal with more verbal confrontations earlier, “this past year, I think people were a little more brazen, and we saw some physical altercations associated with that," she said.
Although Rabbi Benny Zippel, with the Salt Lake City-based Chabad Lubavitch, said he hasn’t personally seen or heard of any hate crimes against Jewish people here, he added that crimes against Jewish people — or anyone — are so prevalent because people focus more on what divides them rather than what unites them. The commonalities come from God, he said, who he believes created everyone.
In the wake of the Oct. 27 mass shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue, Zippel said he is even more convinced of this — and it’s a sign society is failing in that regard.
"If we want to see our society truly progress and develop and see hate crimes stopping, I think it behooves each and every one of us to engage in a very significant paradigm shift, and start looking at a fellow person or, more so, fellow persons from the godly spark that binds us all together, rather than looking at a fellow person or fellow persons based on what separates us,” he said.
In addition to compassion, Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams said, the state needs an updated hate crimes statute.
Utah’s current law, adopted in 1992, doesn’t specify which groups are protected and is limited to misdemeanor-level offenses. It has never resulted in an upheld conviction.
Attempts to get a hate crimes bill, which had widespread support from religious leaders and social justice groups, through the state Legislature earlier this year were unsuccessful, and the bill stalled in the state Senate. As hate groups become emboldened — prompted by, Williams said he believes, the contentious rhetoric of President Donald Trump — legislators need to act, he said.
“At this time, we really collectively need to take a stand that we won’t tolerate this kind of behavior, and we do that through the laws we craft and the laws that we pass,” Williams said. “Right now, the Utah Legislature has been unwilling to consider sensible hate crimes legislation that protects and includes all.”
Williams said he will be pushing for a similar bill this coming legislative session.
This year, Pickens said, her department will be focusing on training law enforcement to recognize the signs of a hate crime, which means not overlooking statements made by accusers and also asking possibly uncomfortable questions of them, such as whether it’s possible they were targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.