The Federal Bureau of Investigations is out with its latest hate crime report this week, and Salt Lake City has scheduled a public webinar to explore the issue Thursday night.
Hate crimes enhance misconduct and violence that investigators find were motivated by bias against a victim’s race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference and identity, or disability. Nationally, the FBI reported 7,314 hate crimes last year, up from 7,120 the year before. Fifty-one murders were associated with hate crimes, the most since 2008. In Utah, law enforcement agencies reported 15 hate crimes, including one in Salt Lake City.
“When I took office in January, this was among some of the first conversations I had. I wanted to ensure our law enforcement polices were in line with some of the latest hate crime statutes,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.
“We estimate that the number of hate crimes that probably exist annually are 250,000,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Brooks also finds it highly unlikely that Salt Lake City only had one hate crime in 2019.
“That’s the largest city that reported only one” to the FBI database, she said. “There’s some underreporting going on in Utah for sure, and in Salt Lake City in particular. It’s just not reasonable to think only one crime happened in a city that populous.”
It’s not just an issue with public safety agencies underreporting. Victims of hate crimes might feel reluctant to come forward to police about hate crimes.
“People don’t always have the impression that law enforcement will take them seriously or investigate it as a hate crime,” Brooks said.
Prosecutors and police are also more likely to investigate a crime itself, but not necessarily the motive, Brooks said. It takes a lot more work to dig up proof that a crime was based on hate or bias.
“There’s a lack of consistent training offered to law enforcement to do it,” Brooks said. “You want to close a case. You don’t want to prove why a person did it, you just want to prove that they did it.”
Mendenhall said Salt Lake City Police lead the state in their hate crime reporting, often elevating crimes to hate crimes when they found evidence of bias, even if the victim didn’t identify it as such. She acknowledged, however, that the single hate crime reported in 2019 “raises the question” about whether there is underreporting.
“When we saw [the FBI] report this week, it perked our ears that it’s something we should look into,” Mendenhall said.
Hate crimes received a lot of attention in Utah last year, when a high-profile case went to federal court after a man beat a Salt Lake City tire shop owner and his son while screaming that he was there to “kill Mexicans.” Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill that made it easier to prosecute hate crimes, although some have argued that lawmakers didn’t take seriously the elevated risk certain minority groups face.
Mendenhall and the Salt Lake City Council formed a Commission on Racial Equity and Policing earlier this year to address systemic bias in law enforcement, particularly after a series of protests and plethora of public comments demanding reforms this summer.
But while a lot of the scrutiny over mistreatment of minorities has fallen on law enforcement in recent months, Mendenhall pointed out that hate crimes are a symptom of culture. The bias-based wrongdoing occurs before police get involved.
“I think it’s a critical component in the work communities need to do, to shine a light on an ugly problem that exists in America,” Mendenhall said.
Thursday’s panel, the mayor said, is for “people who are interested in creating and being a part of a community intention to make our spaces and our policies more safe and welcoming.”
The Community Conversation Series is co-hosted by Salt Lake City and the Salt Lake City Public Library. “The Rising Rate of Hate Crimes in the U.S. and Utah” discussion starts at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19. Those wanting to participate in the webinar can tune in via Zoom or livestream the event on Facebook.
Panelists include Brooks with the Southern Poverty Law Center; Brenda Victoria Castillo, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition; and Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center.