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President Joe Biden, left, greets Speaker Nancy Pelosi after signing the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act.

Photo by The White House

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

On May 20, President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law. Beyond including provisions intended to combat the recent increase in bias-motivated violence against Asian Americans, the law also provides money to help states and local law enforcement agencies collect better, more comprehensive data on hate crimes.

As ProPublica reported in its series Documenting Hate, the lack of reliable information for quantifying and tracking hate crimes has left authorities without a complete understanding of the scope of such incidents or the tools needed to address them.

The FBI compiles national data on hate crimes, but it relies on local law enforcement to supply the underlying information. Reports of hate crimes can slip through the cracks at multiple stages in the process: Victims may not report to the police, the police may not classify reports correctly, and, in some cases, the state may simply fail to transmit the data to the FBI. In many jurisdictions, police aren't trained to understand what makes for a bias-motivated attack. There are wide disparities from agency to agency not only in what's reported but in how.

Nadia Aziz, the deputy director of the Arab American Institute, pointed to the deaths of Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer, which were prosecuted as hate crimes but were not included in the country's official count.

"They were both high-profile hate crimes. They were both charged as hate crimes," Aziz said. Their killers "were convicted on hate crimes charges. But they weren't reported" to the FBI as hate crimes.

The law Biden recently signed — which includes a section named after Jabara and Heyer — supplies grants to help state and local law enforcement agencies switch to a new reporting system that allows for the type of granular data collection needed to understand hate crimes. It also provides money to create state hotlines where people could report bias incidents if they preferred not to go to local police.

The act also provides additional grants for local law enforcement agencies to train officers about hate crimes or to establish new policies, units or reporting systems related to them.

Advocates acknowledge that the law stops short of requiring law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes to the FBI, but they say it's a step forward, especially because it requires agencies that receive grants to report their progress in tracking such crimes to their states, and for states to send those reports to the U.S. attorney general.

"I think it's just critical that this passed," said Dennis Shepard, who along with his wife, Judy, have been advocating for better hate crime laws since their son Matthew was beaten to death and tortured in 1998 because he was gay. "Nobody realized how important data collection would be when they first started doing this."

There are many failure points that can stop bias-motivated crimes from making their way to official reports, ProPublica found in its Documenting Hate reporting.

Law enforcement agencies covering populations of hundreds of thousands frequently say they have no hate crimes, or don't bother to report anything at all to the FBI. Hate crimes can be mislabeled, such as anti-LGBTQ crimes being reported as "anti-heterosexual." Police training on how to investigate and collect data on hate crimes is often inadequate and sometimes nonexistent.

The new law provides incentives for law enforcement to start addressing these flaws.

"It's so critical that they get the funding, and that they apply for it and use it properly," Shepard said.

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