WASHINGTON (CN) – Hate crimes spiked in four major American cities in the first months of 2017, with the percentage year-over-year change in one of them, Chicago, reaching a staggering 160 percent, according to the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
The center found the number of hate crimes jumped 21 percent in the nation’s capital, and roughly 40 percent in New York and Los Angeles.
The small cohort of year-to-date data, considered preliminary and subject to change in the coming months, also showed increases in anti-Arab and anti-transgender hate crimes, according to Brian Levin, who directs the center at California State University at San Bernardino.
Levin presented the sobering assessment at a Justice Department hate crimes summit Thursday, which he said left him with a favorable impression after initial reservations about a Department of Justice led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In an opinion piece he penned in November, Levin wondered whether the civil rights division of the DOJ would remain active in enforcing the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crime Act, which Congress passed in 2009, and which needs the attorney general’s approval to enforce.
Sessions had been a vocal critic of the legislation at the time, and voted against it.
But in opening remarks at the summit, Sessions expressed commitment to tackling hate crimes.
“The Trump administration and the Department of Justice are committed to reducing violent crime and hate crimes and making America safe,” Sessions said.
“No person should have to fear being attacked because of who they are, what they believe or how they worship. So I pledge to you,” he continued, “as long as I am Attorney General, the Department of Justice will continue to protect the civil rights of all Americans – and we will not tolerate the targeting of any community in our country.”
Sessions touted the DOJ’s recent efforts, including bringing federal charges against a man suspected of calling in dozens of bomb threats to Jewish community centers, indictment of a Texas man for burglarizing and setting fire to a mosque, and the sentencing this month of a man to 19 years in prison for trying to recruit people to help him burn down a small town mosque in New York state.
He also said the department will tackle anti-transgender hate crimes.
“We have and will continue to enforce hate crime laws aggressively and appropriately where transgendered individuals are victims,” Sessions said.
The hate crimes summit impressed Levin, who said he did not expect it would address violence against transgender people and Muslims.
“The words were encouraging,” he said in a phone interview. “Where the rubber hits the road is how sustained and coordinated the efforts between advocates, experts and government is going to be,” he added.
The level of substantive discourse and expertise – along with the exchanges between prosecutors, the FBI, the Community Relations Service and summit attendees – heartened Levin.
“There hasn’t been a hate crimes summit like this that I can remember in a long time,” he said.
In addition to his 2017 statistics, Levin said he spoke at the summit about the need to use the bully pulpit to combat hate, and shared research showing a possible link between highly publicized statements by political leaders, and dramatic shifts in reported hate crimes.
For example, in the five days immediately following the San Bernardino shooting on December 2, 2015, eight anti-Muslim hate crimes were reported. Five days later, then-candidate Donald Trump tweeted a link to a campaign statement on preventing Muslim immigration. In the five days after that, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped to 15.
Conversely, after a sharp spike resulting in 77 anti-Muslim hate crimes in the six days following the 9/11 attacks, that number dipped to 26 during the six days following President George W. Bush’s speech at a mosque on September 17, 2001 that focused on tolerance.
According to Levin, DOJ officials present at Thursday’s hate crimes summit actively engaged with this material.
“I don’t think we could have had a better first meeting,” Levin said of the summit. “But what I’ve found is that in public policy – like baseball – you never want to call the season in April.”
Levin said he came away from the summit believing the DOJ wants continued and sustained interaction and feedback from the attendees invited.
He was also encouraged, he said, that the agency seems committed to looking at improving infrastructure to tackle hate crimes, such as revitalizing U.S. attorneys’ offices as conduits to implement policies, and coordinate relationships between state and local law enforcement agencies and targeted communities.
Such efforts will be needed, according to Levin’s research.
Data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism showed a 6 percent increase in hate crimes among 25 or the largest cities and counties during 2016.
“If it holds to the 6.7 percent increase that we saw with the FBI data for 2015, that will be the first annual back to back increase in hate crimes since 2004,” he said.
Although the data is subject to change, and cities like Phoenix and Boston showed a decrease in hate crimes, Levin said it’s safe to conclude that hate crimes increased in larger cities and counties in 2016.
More data returns, and analysis at the state level, will reveal trends at the national level, he said.