Nearly two years after plowing his car into a group of counterprotesters at the Unite the Right rally—killing Heather Heyer and injuring 35 others—self-proclaimed neo-Nazi James Alex Fields Jr. was convicted on 29 federal hate crime charges.
Yet Heyer’s death was one of the thousands of hate crimes not included in official FBI hate crime statistics, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The FBI relies on local law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes, but because the system is voluntary, many agencies don’t. And even the data that is submitted is flawed, advocates say, because the definition of a hate crime varies from state to state and many local agencies aren’t trained to identify them.
In 2016, nearly “nine out of 10 law enforcement agencies in the country reported no hate crimes, even though…the FBI has information showing hate crimes going up,” says Virginia Senator Tim Kaine.
In response to this systematic underreporting, Kaine, along with fellow Virginia Senator Mark Warner and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, is pushing Congress to pass the Khalid Jabara-Heather Heyer NO HATE Act, named in honor of Heyer and Khalid Jabara, a Lebanese man killed by his neighbor Stanley Majors in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2016. (Though Majors, who repeatedly harassed the Jabara family with racist taunts and ran one of the family members down months before shooting Khalid on his front porch, was convicted of a hate crime, that murder was also not included in official FBI hate crime statistics.)
The act aims to “fix the problematic underreporting of hate crimes…and reiterate that hate is not welcome in this country,” Warner says, specifically by supporting the implementation of the National Incident-Based Reporting System to make it easier for local and state law enforcement agencies to comply with existing reporting requirements.
Hate crimes have increased sharply since the election of President Trump, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. But they are still underreported: In 2015, the FBI reported approximately 7,000 hate crime victims nationwide, but the National Center for Victims of Crime says that, between 2005 and 2015, there were about 250,000 hate crime victims per year. Studies show that only about half of all hate crimes are even reported to the police.
Kaine says doing a better job of measuring hate crimes will help reduce and prevent them, and he points to the example of law enforcement homicides.
Local agencies are “very good [at reporting] the deaths of law enforcement officers,” he says. “As a result, the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty has dramatically decreased in [recent] decades, by focusing attention on it.”
Another goal of the act is to help better train law enforcement to prevent and recognize hate crimes. It will create a grant to support law enforcement agencies that establish policies on identifying, investigating, and reporting hate crimes, including training officers, developing systems for collecting data, establishing hate crimes units, and engaging with the community.
“One of the reasons that [law enforcement agencies] often don’t report is they just haven’t had training on how to recognize hate crimes,” says Kaine.
The act will also create a grant program to establish and operate hate crime hotlines across the country, allowing states to record information on hate crimes and direct victims to law enforcement and local support services.
Perpetrators of hate crimes will be sentenced differently as well. The bill will allow judges to require persons convicted under federal hate crime laws to undergo community service or educational classes centered on the community targeted by their crime.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, has participated in press conferences with the Jabara family in support of the act, and spoken with some of the lawmakers sponsoring the bill.
“Heather is everywhere—in the news, in our minds, in our hearts—but she’s not in the data, nor are the 35 people who were injured while marching alongside her in Charlottesville. If such a despicable act of hatred is not reflected in hate crime statistics, think of everything else that might be missing,” said Bro at a press conference.
“Hate crime investigation…has been pushed aside in general,” added Bro in an interview. “In order to have an authentic prescription for the problem, we need to at least know how big the problem actually is.”
The act has been endorsed by more than a dozen organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Disability Rights Network.
“We have broad stakeholders who’ve looked at this [act] and feel like it’s balanced and it’s going to help us tackle the phenomenon of the increase in hate crimes,” says Kaine.
Bro encourages everyone to call on their representatives and senators to support the act.
“We need bipartisan support,” she says.