By Jean Reynolds

Hate crimes are an important topic in police training programs. Police officers need to understand the difference between hateful talk, which is protected under the First Amendment, and hateful actions. To be considered a “hate crime,” an offense must be motivated at least in part by bias. It’s not enough to show that the offender was prejudiced against a particular group. Hate crimes can include murder, assault, rape, intimidation, arson, vandalism, bullying, verbal harassment, and other offenses.

Hate crimes are particularly serious because they affect both the direct victim and other members of the target group, which may experience depression, anxiety, alienation, vulnerability and—most seriously—terror. Lynching—a punishment (often murder) carried out by an unauthorized mob—is a famous example of a hate crime. Well into the twentieth century, lynch mobs (especially in the South) executed black men and women without the benefit of a legal trial.

Laws against hate crimes have a long history in the United States. The first hate crime laws were passed after the American Civil War, beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1871, in response to crimes committed by the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups.

In 1968 Congress passed federal statute 18 U.S. 245, which made it illegal to “by force or by threat of force, injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone…by reason of their race, color, religion, or national origin.” In 2009, the Matthew Shepard Act added gender issues, sexual orientation, and disabilities to the list. The Act also gave the federal government authority to prosecute violent hate crimes, and it authorized funding and technical assistance to state, local, and tribal jurisdictions for dealing with hate crimes.

Despite this important federal legislation, most hate crimes are investigated and prosecuted by state and local authorities. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have hate crime statutes. The FBI can help with investigations even if a federal law has not been broken. In 2012, for example, the FBI was involved with 200 hate crime investigations.

Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have statutes requiring the state to collect hate crime statistics, which are sent to the FBI for analysis and publication in annual reports. The FBI also sponsors a Cold Case Initiative that re-investigates and retries (when possible) unsolved hate crimes.

FBI hate crime data for 2014 FBI indicates that racially motivated hate crimes are the most common (47%). Next are acts that target religious affiliations and sexual orientation (18.6% each). Ethnicity, gender identity, disability, and gender are less common.

Police officers need to be aware of the seriousness of hate crimes. During an investigation, evidence suggesting that bias was a motivating factor should be documented in detail in the police report.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2015, November 16). Bias Breakdown. Retrieved from