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How the Sikh community’s experiences with hate crimes shows why data collection is so important

Lakhwant Singh was working in his suburban Denver liquor store in April 2020 when a man walked in, assaulted him, damaged products, shouted profanity and yelled “go back to your country.”

Singh, who is Sikh and wears a turban, followed the man outside to take a photo of his license plate so he could report the incident. The man then rammed his car into Singh, injuring his arms, legs and head, and breaking his pelvis, which required surgery. According to law enforcement, the suspect, a white man, targeted Singh because he believed he was an “Arab.”

Almost three months after the attack and following pressure from the Sikh community and other civil rights advocates, the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office in Colorado brought several charges against the suspect, including those for a bias-motivated crime. The case remains pending while authorities determine the suspect’s mental competence.

Singh’s experience was another example of the gaps in the way hate crimes are recorded and reported — for several communities, but especially Sikhs, who are often misunderstood by the public and law enforcement because of their unique religious traditions, like covering their hair with turbans. They are among several groups for which hate crime data may be failing to reveal the scale of the problem. Several high-profile incidents against Sikhs have included discussion of hate crime as motivation. In April, a shooter killed eight people, including four Sikhs, in a mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis; while the motive is still under investigation, Indianapolis police said the perpetrator visited white supremacist websites before the attack. Eight years earlier, another white supremacist killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Just days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a gunman fatally shot a Sikh owner of an Arizona gas station. But many others fall through the cracks.

Crime data collection by the government and law enforcement is a fragmented, often voluntary and messy process, likely hiding the true scale of how bias-motivated crimes are affecting communities of color and faith, experts say. As hate crimes against East and Southeast Asians, in particular, have surged since the pandemic’s start, advocates have called on the government for more and better data collection. In 2019, the most recent year the FBI has released national statistics, local law enforcement agencies reported 7,314 hate crime incidents around the country. But more than half of hate crime victimizations generally go unreported to law enforcement, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Groups outside government, like Stop AAPI Hate, have recorded much higher numbers — 6,600 reports of hate crimes against the Asian American community since March 2020, bringing a larger scale of violence and harassment to the attention of lawmakers, the media and the public.

The quality of data collected by the government could change under the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act and Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act that Congress passed on May 18 and President Joe Biden signed into law two days later. The new legislation acknowledges that “a complete understanding of the national problem posed by hate crimes is hindered by incomplete data from Federal, State, and local jurisdictions” through the FBI’s existing Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program. The legislation is intended to help modernize the federal hate crime reporting system and will provide grants to local law enforcement departments to help better train them to report hate crime data.

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Kevin Grisham, who studies hate crimes at California State University, San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, said there has been a consistent discrepancy between the FBI data and what Asian Americans actually experience. Grisham said sometimes incidents against Sikhs are misidentified by law enforcement who might record a crime as bias against another religion other than Sikhism. “That skews the data and really hurts policy decision makers,” Grisham said.

For years, the Sikh community, including the advocacy group the Sikh Coalition, pushed authorities to recognize anti-Sikh hate crimes, and the FBI agreed to start doing so in 2015. Since then, the department has tracked 142 anti-Sikh incidents as part of the annual UCR program, which aggregates numbers from law enforcement agencies across the country. There are an estimated 500,000 Sikhs living in America.

The FBI acknowledged in a statement to the PBS NewsHour that before it added an anti-Sikh category, these crimes were categorized under a more general “other” category within religious bias. “Disaggregating this data has allowed the FBI UCR Program to provide more specific religion bias data to the nation,” the FBI said. “The addition of the anti-Sikh category has led to more accurate statistics and understanding of the threat which lends itself to a more targeted and effective mitigative effort.”

Anti-Arab hate crimes — tracked under category “Code 31” — were also excluded from federal statistics until 2015. “Just as Bias Motivation Code 31 (Anti-Arab) was rendered invalid in federal data collections, so too were anti-Arab hate crime victims rendered invisible in official statistics,” the Arab American Institute said in a report about this issue.

Maya Berry, the institute’s executive director, says hate crimes can be misclassified into the wrong bias category when law enforcement aren’t appropriately trained or from mistakes made in data entry. “We know there’s a massive underreporting problem,” Berry said. “Communities have to understand what is happening in order to respond to this crisis of hate in this country, and part of that is understanding victims targeted.”

Collection of the UCR data — the largest federal government-led effort around hate crime data — is largely voluntary. Local law enforcement agencies choose whether to participate, which makes the national data unreliable and incomplete. Alabama agencies reported zero hate crimes to the FBI in 2019, but that is based on the two agencies out of hundreds of agencies in the state that reported data to the FBI.

Grisham said the incomplete data means that communities can ignore issues related to hate and bias.

“If you don’t know what’s going on within communities, you can’t figure out how to address them,” Grisham said. “If the public was more aware of what was really going on, there would be more of a call for action.”

The largest concentrations of Sikh communities in the U.S. are on the two coasts — especially in California, New York and New Jersey, according to the Sikh Coalition. There are more than 40,000 Sikh Americans in and around Fresno, California. The city’s police department said it does share its data with the FBI’s UCR program, but they have no recorded anti-Sikh incidents in 2020 or from January through April of 2021.

“For the police department, data is important no matter what you’re tracking — hate incidents, property crimes,” said Lt. Rob Beckwith with the Fresno Police Department. “Data really helps us decide how we’re going to deploy resources to the right areas.”

While the processes vary from agency to agency, some of the nation’s most-resourced police agencies have more comprehensive programs around hate crimes. The New York City Police Department, the largest law enforcement agency in the country, regularly publishes hate crime statistics online and has documented protocol on what officers should do when encountering bias-motivated incidents. The Los Angeles Police Department has assigned hate crime investigators to 21 stations across the city, who help oversee its investigations. And the Chicago Police Department publishes the UCR data they send the FBI on a publicly accessible dashboard.

Even when hate crime data is collected, community advocates say it’s not doing much beyond sharing the scale of the problem. Rupinder Singh, the Sikh American blogger behind American Turban, says law enforcement agencies and policymakers have not made clear what they envision doing or changing because of the data.

Singh also believes the burden needs to be put on the perpetrators of the crimes, rather than the victims.

“We’re not talking about what’s causing the fire. We’re talking about what’s burning,” Singh said. “We should really be looking at the source: Who’s perpetrating it? Why? How are they coming to perpetrate these actions? And how do we deconstruct that? How do we address that? We’re not having that conversation.”

Prosecuting hate crimes can be a complicated process, and the threshold for even proving a crime was bias-motivated can be challenging in the United States’ legal system. The prosecution has to prove that the defendant’s state of mind was hate-motivated, which can require extensive and time-consuming collection of evidence, said Arusha Gordon, associate director of the James Byrd Jr. Center to Stop Hate at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. While sometimes the bigotry is obvious, like a perpetrator who has published an online manifesto that shows intention, often the evidence is murkier and law enforcement has to dig into the weeds.

WATCH: Sikhs reflect on targeted attacks after FedEx shooting

In California, for example, just 59 cases in 2015 resulted in hate crime convictions in a year in which there were 837 reported hate crime incidents, 189 of which were prosecuted as hate crime cases.

Gordon said the process often breaks down in the beginning after a hate crime occurs. “I do think there is a large number of hate crimes which simply don’t get reported to law enforcement, because law enforcement doesn’t have the trust of the targeted communities,” Gordon said.

Gordon said she applauds the jurisdictions that build trust and combat hate, but many avoid it because they don’t want their jurisdiction to be associated with hate crimes.

“As a result of inadequate law enforcement responses to hate and white supremacist activity, the perpetrators and the groups committing these violent acts are only emboldened to escalate their campaign of hate against minority communities,” said Sim J. Singh, senior manager of policy and advocacy for the Sikh Coalition. “They think that they can get away with it.”

He believes having better data will help identify the prevention strategies required to keep communities safe.

“The data collection shows essentially the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hate crimes,” Singh said. “In order to develop effective policy solutions to combat hate, policymakers first have to understand the scope of the problem.”