When someone interrupted a Connecticut town’s racial equity and justice task force virtual meeting with racist remarks last week, the incident was immediately reported to police.
But that usually isn’t the case, experts say.
In fact, experts and law enforcement officials say many victims of hate crimes don’t report the incidents for a variety of reasons, including fear, denial and embarrassment.
Steven Freeman, vice president of civil rights for the Anti-Defamation League, said reluctant victims is not a new issue.
“It’s really hard to measure how many people don’t say something, but we know it’s a problem,” Freeman said.
He said there have been “huge numbers” of municipalities nationwide that “reported zero” hate crimes “when we know there have been crimes there.” He said places that often see the highest numbers of reported hate crimes are where agencies do the best job at investigating and handling these cases, so victims feel more comfortable coming forward.
In Fairfield, where last week’s virtual meeting was interrupted, Lt. Antonio Granata said the department wants to hear from victims.
“People need to come forward. These types of events, these types of crimes, need to get reported,” Granata said. “We want to know and we want to help. ... It’s cowardly what these people are doing, and we want to find the people responsible.”
He said cases of hate crimes can be “very straightforward or highly complex.” He said charges vary, with investigators needing to examine each instance on a case-by-case basis to see what threshold of state law is met.
Fairfield Police Chief Robert Kalamaras said a hate crime investigation was launched Thursday night after the unknown person showed images of slaves, and used “racial epithets” and “racist remarks” during the virtual meeting. He said some of the statements targeted Black members of the task force.
“There is no place for this type of racist behavior and language in our community and we will do everything we can to identify the person who committed this disgusting act and hold them responsible,” Kalamaras said.
Granata said the incident was unfortunate, especially since it targeted a group tasked with making Fairfield a safer community, but these instances also raise awareness to the racial issues the task force is working to address.
“These cases are high priority,” Granata said. “The more knowledge we have on this kind of information, the better we can address it ... This affects everybody.”
“These are intentionally hurtful incidents,” he continued. “There’s zero place for it in our community.”
Statewide, there were 128 reported hate crime instances tracked by the Anti-Defamation League in 2020, compared with 65 incidents in 2019. Experts said there were likely many factors for the steep increase, including turmoil linked to the ongoing pandemic and the presidential election.
So far this year, the ADL data has tracked 13 reported hate crimes in Connecticut, not including the recent Fairfield incident.
“Hate crimes are grossly under-reported,” said Elizabeth Fles, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Bridgeport who has expertise in social stigmatization, hate crimes and white supremacist groups. “There’s no way to know how many hate crimes actually exist. I would say there are astronomically more taking place than are reported.”
Fles said there are many reasons people could be reluctant to report, including immigration status, embarrassment or feeling unsafe coming forward.
Freeman said many people also might not know the signs of a hate crime. And he said a lack of sanctions for law enforcement agencies that do not document hate crimes makes it even more likely that these incidents will be under-reported.
The Hate Crimes Statistics Act was signed into law in 1990, requiring the attorney general to collect data on crimes committed because of a person’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity. In 1992, the FBI began publishing an annual report on hate crime statistics.
“The mandate is you should report this, but there’s no sanction, there’s no way to enforce it,” Freeman said.
He said the totals do not represent the full picture because of a lack of identifying hate crimes, under-reporting and the hesitancy of some victims to come forward.
“We know that people don’t want to come forward because they’re anxious about talking to the police, or they’re embarrassed or think it’s not a big deal,” Freeman said.
He said many victims of hate crimes are also likely undocumented who are afraid to come forward in case it impacts their ability to remain in the United States.
“We need to make sure people are comfortable reporting,” Freeman said.
Freeman said while organizations like the ADL can help someone who has been the victim of a hate crime, “there is not a substitute for law enforcement” for the incident to be investigated or an arrest made.
Glenda Armstrong, president of the Danbury chapter of the NAACP, said hate crime victims do not report incidents for many reasons, including wanting to assimilate or not thinking it reaches the severity of a crime. She said sometimes a lack of details also might prevent someone from going to police.
“Most people don’t even know what constitutes hate speech or a hate crime,” Armstrong said. “In some cases, you don’t know who they (the suspect) were, where it came from, what happened, you have very little information. It takes you out of your element.”
She said she would like to see a human rights commission or a similar organization for Connecticut residents to report these hate crimes.
“We don’t have a mechanism set up in our community to address these issues when they come up, short of calling the police,” Armstrong said. “So we end up with human service needs that are expected to be addressed by the police department.”
She said the community also needs to do more to actively combat hate crimes, and to ensure those perpetrating those crimes change their behavior and attitude in the future.
“It’s so important for us to talk about hate speech in classrooms, community groups, in religious organizations,” Armstrong said. “It’s important for us to have that conversation so folks know at all levels of the community that it’s not acceptable and it’s illegal.”
“We have to draw attention to it,” Armstrong continued. “Communities need to build an infrastructure to address these issues. And we cannot act like they do not exist, because they do exist. We need to address it in a real way.”
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Sean Yan, a 17-year veteran with the agency, said in a public service announcement this month that hate crimes would be investigated “rigorously and without hesitation.”
“We can’t help if we don’t know,” Yan said.
In the PSA, Connecticut State Police Trooper First Class Luke LaRue urged anyone who is the victim of a hate crime to immediately report it.
“The sooner we are aware of such crimes, the quicker we can pursue the criminals and bring them to justice,” LaRue said.