Year after year, most Texas police departments report zero hate crimes. Here’s why.
A Texas Tribune analysis of hate crime data found that 82% of Texas law enforcement agencies that report to the FBI tracked no hate crimes last year. However, one suburban North Texas police agency is creating a new model of collecting hate crime data.
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Bertha Germany was looking after the children at her day care when her neighbor called. She needed to come home immediately. Someone had vandalized her home.
After closing, she zipped across Texarkana, the northeast Texas town divided by the state’s boundary with Arkansas. As she pulled up, she saw a racial slur derogatory to Black people and the image of male genitalia spray painted across the side of her house.
“It kind of frightened me a bit,” said Germany, who is Black. Why had she been singled out?
Charles Norton, a neighbor who owns a power washing business, offered to remove the graffiti. Moved by the offer, Germany made a Facebook post recounting the incident. The post spread and neighbors who also had been vandalized contacted her.
Neither were charged with a hate crime. And their spree was never recorded as a bias-motivated crime, which carries a lower burden of proof than bringing hate crime charges against suspects. It’s a problem for criminal justice observers and advocates for groups often targeted for crime, including communities of color, religious minorities, and LGBTQ+ people — especially as hate crimes across the country are on the rise. They say without better data, it’s impossible to reverse the trend.
Shawn Vaughn, public information officer for the Texarkana Police Department, said detectives determined the string of vandalism wasn’t a hate crime because ultimately half of the properties that were tagged were owned by Black people. The other half of the owners were white.
“They were just arbitrarily picking houses and cars. They had no idea who the victims were,” Vaughn said. “Is it disgusting and tasteless? Absolutely. But I think you've got to look at the intent here on the part of the two guys.”
Bess Gamble-Williams, a community activist who visited Germany in the aftermath of the incident, notes that Germany was the only person targeted on her street with several white homeowners. In addition, the intent was already apparent in the fact the racial slur was spray painted in the first place, regardless of who the victim happened to be, and should have at least been documented with the state, according to state law.
“What was their intent? We already know what the intent is,” said Gamble-Williams. “It’s because [they] want to spew hatred, period. Vile hatred and that's what it was. Plain and simple.”
Texas’ criminal justice system — from police officers to prosecutors — is ill-equipped to grapple with hate crimes. The state’s hate crimes law is limited in scope, and there is a dearth of uniform training and policies across the state. While some larger agencies in cities have dedicated units trained to investigate hate crimes, smaller agencies in rural areas seem unprepared to identify incidents of bias.
In 2001, state lawmakers passed the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act. That law, named for the 49-year-old Black man who was dragged to death by three white men in the small East Texas town of Jasper in June 1998, defines hate crimes as those motivated by bias against a person’s perceived or actual race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender or sexual preference. It requires all law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which then passes that data on to the FBI. The law also gives prosecutors the option of seeking additional punishment for Texans found guilty of hate crimes.
Despite the law, most Texas agencies neither report nor prosecute hate crimes. A total of 868 Texas law enforcement agencies reported zero hate crimes in 2022, a Texas Tribune analysis of FBI data found. That’s 82% of all agencies that reported data to the FBI.
And some agencies contacted by The Texas Tribune for this article said that the hate crimes they did report were in error. Of the thousands of hate crimes that were reported in Texas since 2001, only 36 were prosecuted as such, according to data collected by the Office of Court Administration.
That leaves Texans with a murky understanding of where hate crimes are happening and to whom.
“We can’t put resources into prevention or figure out how we can address these crimes if we don’t have the data,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks hate crimes.
Nonprofit and human rights groups have tried to fill the gap in reporting. Based on the data collected, the number of hate crimes has unequivocally risen in Texas and nationwide. A September report from the Anti-Defamation League found that antisemitic incidents in the state have jumped by 89% since 2021. More recent reports find that antisemitic incidents nationwide have increased by 388% since the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Texas also led the nation in white supremacist propaganda last year.
Groups have also found that violence against the LGBTQ+ community, especially transgender people, has increased. Human Rights Watch found at least 59 transgender and gender non-conforming people were killed in 2021, the most since the group began tracking. Eight were killed in Texas — the most out of any state.
“We are seeing an increased presence of groups like neo-Nazis, whether it’s protesters at drag shows or even at Torchy’s Tacos,” said Chloe Goodman, who works for Equality Texas, a nonprofit organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights. “Every day, I’m working with parents whose child was assaulted at school because they are queer, or they aren’t being supported for their beliefs at school.”
Police officers do not face a mountain of paperwork or lots of red tape if they suspect an incident is a hate crime. They just have to check one box on their typical incident forms.
According to FBI data, from 1991 to 2022, Texas law enforcement agencies reported a total of 9,530 hate crimes, with 587 reported in 2022. Hate crimes reported in Texas rose about 120% in 2018 and have been climbing ever since. Chad Yarbrough, Dallas FBI field office special agent in charge, attributed this increase partly to outreach done by the FBI to both law enforcement and victims to improve reporting.
Over 35% of the hate crimes reported since 1991 were against Black people and almost 20% targeted LGBTQ+ people. They are the two biggest groups targeted, according to the data.
Big cities like Dallas, Houston and Austin reported the most hate crimes. Almost 55% were reported by police departments in North and Central Texas. In East Texas, where James Byrd was murdered 25 years ago, police reported only 659 hate crimes — or about 7% of the total number reported since 1991. About 9% of the state’s population lived in East Texas in 2022.
However, when the Tribune asked certain law enforcement agencies in East Texas about their hate crime incidents, they said the crimes were misidentified.
Four incidents reported in 2017 by Vidor law enforcement were mistakenly marked as hate crimes, according to the city’s police chief, Rod Carroll. The only hate crime that was reported by Port Arthur police in the last 30 years was also “mislabeled” by an officer, said the city’s police chief, Tim Duriso.
In Tyler, only three out of 17 hate crimes reported since 2014 were, in fact, hate crimes. The remaining were incorrectly marked, said Andy Erbaugh, the department’s public information officer. Erbaugh said that the department will have training for officers so they can better understand what constitutes a hate crime. He said some crimes against minorities were mislabeled as hate crimes without any evidence that bias motivated the crime.
“It’s a serious thing to say a crime was anti-Black when you don’t have any evidence it’s anti-Black,” Erbaugh said. “We are going to have a training for officers so they can understand when they need to put that there was a bias.”
Experts say that an even bigger challenge is the underreporting of hate crimes from both police officers and victims.
Every year, when the FBI publishes its annual hate crime statistics, the agency includes data on police departments that participated in their program but reported zero hate crimes.
In 2022, 1,064 Texas law enforcement agencies reported to the FBI, but 82% of those reported zero hate crimes. The year before, that percentage was 81%.
Because hate crime reporting requirements vary from state to state and participating in the FBI’s hate crime data collection program is voluntary, it’s hard to determine whether underreporting is a uniquely Texan problem. In California, a state of almost 39 million residents, police reported over three times as many hate crimes as in Texas, a state of about 30 million residents. Still, almost 60% of California agencies reported zero hate crimes in 2022. Florida, a state of almost 22 million residents, reported about a quarter the number of hate crimes as Texas that same year because most Florida police departments did not even participate in the program.
While it’s mostly agencies in small jurisdictions that consistently reported zero hate crimes, some police departments in bigger cities have gone years without reporting any hate crimes. Officials in Brownsville, population 187,000, did not report any hate crimes from 1991 until they reported one in 2018 and three in 2022. Police in Irving, with a population of more than 250,000, reported hate crimes consistently in the early 2000s but then didn’t report a single hate crime from 2003 until 2020. And only one hate crime was reported between 2006 and 2018 in Amarillo, home to more than 200,000 residents.
Rural police departments are also less likely to report hate crimes. Only about 7% of hate crimes reported since 1991 came from police departments in counties with a population of less than 50,000. Over 9% of the state’s population live in rural counties.
Underreporting is partially due to officers not being sufficiently trained to recognize hate crimes, especially when investigating minor crimes, said Jack McDevitt, a retired researcher and director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University who has trained police around the country.
“If it's a racially motivated murder, [police] are going to investigate it that way. If it's a minor thing and somebody says, ‘go back to your country’ and writes that on someone’s home, they're gonna say, ‘maybe it was just kids,’” McDevitt said. “You find that they missed a lot of the less serious events.”
And hate crimes can be complicated to investigate.
“If someone reports a theft like someone stole my wallet. There’s a wallet and it’s missing. That’s pretty easy,” McDevitt said. “If they say they hit me because I’m LGBTQ, then you have to find out if they really hit them and then you have to find out why they were motivated to do that. That’s harder to do.”
To determine whether a hate crime occurred, officers should look for evidence that the suspect was motivated by bias or has a history of prejudicial behavior, several police officials have said. They should also look at whether the victim interpreted the offense as prejudicial. If an officer believes there is probable cause for a hate crime, they are supposed to document it in the incident report.
However, police departments don’t agree on what qualifies as a hate crime.
In Texarkana, Vaughn said they have rarely run into an incident that fits the criteria of a hate crime in the last 30 years. That includes the 2021 spray painting incident.
In contrast, Arlington saw a string of vehicles vandalized with racist graffiti in July 2023, similar to what happened in Texarkana. Not all of the victims were Black in this case as well. Regardless, those incidents were all reported to the state as hate crimes.
According to Yarbrough, the Dallas FBI field office leader, crimes against personal property like those carried out in Arlington and Texarkana should be labeled as hate crimes.
“They likely did it as part of a bias,” Yarbrough said. “So that would be a hate crime no matter what the race of the victim was.”
Victims of hate crimes also underreport.
A Department of Justice study found the average number of yearly hate crime victims between 2010 and 2019 in the U.S. was 31 times larger than the average number of yearly hate crimes reported by local authorities to the FBI.
When victims were asked the reasons why they didn’t report, roughly 38% of them said they solved it in a way that did not involve law enforcement. About a quarter believed police would or could not help them.
For marginalized communities that have historically been profiled by law enforcement, distrust of the police can also factor in.
“We haven’t for very long been able to trust police,” said Kennedy Loftin, chief development officer of the Montrose Center, referring to the history of criminalization of LGBTQ+ individuals carried out by Houston police. “Most of our elders have memories of the police only coming to arrest them, not coming to protect them.”
That’s why Loftin emphasizes liaisons to repair a fraught relationship between law enforcement and marginalized communities. At the Montrose Center, Loftin said that a Houston police department officer, who is LGBTQ+, works in their building to make it a safer space for individuals in the LGBTQ+ community to report hate crimes.
On Halloween 2021, two teenagers dressed as Ku Klux Klansmen terrorized a Black classmate in Woodsboro, a tiny town of 1,300 people in South Texas. A video of the incident showed the teens taunting the victim and then pointing a stun gun at him.
While the victim was physically OK, the incident outraged local residents and brought back memories of violence against African Americans in a region with a history of racism. In the immediate aftermath, it wasn’t clear whether the perpetrators would be held accountable. School officials said they could not discipline the students because the incident happened off school property. And arrests were not immediately made.
“Initially it was regarded as kids being kids,” said Matthew Manning, a civil attorney who heard about the incident and then posted about it on social media. Manning was later retained to represent the victim’s family. “There’s a difference between kids being kids and people choosing to take actions with the intent of terrorizing people.”
The local chapter of the NAACP and some residents advocated that the case be investigated as a hate crime. In December, the Woodsboro Police Department arrested the two suspects and indicted them on third-degree felonies with hate crime enhancements. Ultimately, one of them pled guilty to a misdemeanor assault with the hate crime enhancement and the other pled guilty to criminal mischief charges, an outcome that pleased Manning and the victim’s family.
Manning said he believes the district attorney held the teens accountable because of public pressure.
Assistant District Attorney Tim Poynter said that his office did speak with community members who advocated for the hate crime enhancement. But, he said, he and his team ultimately took the action they felt was right.
“Of course we consider whether or not there is support for a prosecution,” Poynter said. “We consider what we think will happen and how we can make sure justice is served and also respected.”
Like police officers, prosecutors have discretion when interpreting the law. And factors prosecutors consider when deciding whether to pursue a charge include whether there is public or political support for conducting an investigation, the severity of the crime and the victim’s interests. As a result, victims and advocates are often left to drum up support to pursue a hate crime investigation.
This was the case after the June killing of 24-year-old Akira Ross in Cedar Park, a suburb of Austin. Her family has called the murder a hate crime because witnesses said the perpetrator, Bradley Stanford, yelled gay slurs at Ross before shooting her. Ross’s family members and LGBTQ+ advocates have called on the district attorney’s office to investigate the incident as a hate crime.
“Not calling it a hate crime fails the community, and it fails to acknowledge the impact that this crime has,” said Goodman at Equality Texas. “We understand that there’s institutional credibility in documenting violence and hatred accurately.”
Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick said a hate crime enhancement was not included in the indictment of Stanford because doing so would have no impact on the punishment. When added to charges, hate crime enhancements can make the penalties harsher but are often dropped on first-degree murder or other serious charges because the punishments are already as severe as they can get.
And yet some advocates say the hate crime label matters, even if the punishment does not change.
“People in the social majority don’t want to believe that incidents like this happen because of someone’s minority status,” Goodman said. “Calling something a hate crime helps people who are outside of the situation understand the gravity of what happened.”
In 2004, six years after Byrd was murdered, his grave in Jasper was desecrated with racial epithets. Two white teenagers were arrested and charged with criminal mischief, but hate crime enhancements were not tacked onto the charges. The Jasper district attorney’s office said they don’t retain records as far back as 2004 and could not comment on the case.
For Louvon Byrd Harris, James’ younger sister, the lack of a hate crime charge was disappointing.
“To torment his grave is a continuation of hate and it should have been charged accordingly,” Byrd said. “He couldn’t walk in peace when he was alive, and now as dead he can’t even rest in peace.”
The roundtable came up with several solutions, including developing training for law enforcement to identify and investigate hate crimes, improving the way law enforcement reports hate crimes and supporting outreach to encourage victims to come forward.
One presenter and participant was then-Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson. The very next year, his administration expanded the department’s hate crime policy to include reporting hate incidents — even if no physical crime is committed.
For example, in 2021, Arlington police documented a complaint by local sanitary workers who were often called racial and ethnic slurs by a resident.
“Even though there’s no criminal offense, but it’s bias-motivated, we listened to this member of our community,” Cpl. Chris Holder said. “Now maybe the next time there is actually a criminal offense, they know to contact us.”
Arlington Cpl. Jastin Williams said that documenting hate incidents has also helped officers become more familiar with and to be on the lookout for actual hate crimes.
Since the policy change in August 2019, Arlington police officers have documented 142 total hate incidents — the vast majority of them being verbal comments and slurs toward individuals. During the same period, Arlington reported 55 hate crimes to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Williams and Holder were also tasked with developing an eight-hour hate crime training course for the department. It covers how to recognize and report both hate crimes and incidents as well as underlining the importance of doing so.
“One of the big things that we talk about a lot when we teach this course is that a hate crime doesn't just impact that individual,” said Holder. “It has a ripple effect.”
The officers have taught the course and shared their best practices with law enforcement in other states.
The FBI Dallas field office has also trained some local law enforcement agencies to have more “more consistency when it comes to classification and reporting,” said Yarbrough, special agent in charge.
There is no state mandate that police officers undergo a hate crime training course. However, both Arlington officers hope that will change soon. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement has used Arlington's resources in hate crime training in the past.
The Commission, a state agency that sets standards for police agencies, did not respond to the Tribune’s request for comment.
Disclosure: Equality Texas, Facebook and Southern Poverty Law Center have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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