The dispute ended in a severe beating on the street in Irving, Texas, after five teens surrounded 16-year-old Mark Casarez, hurling anti-gay abuse.
But the seeds were sown in the school hallway, when Casarez saw his friend Jennifer being harassed by a younger boy. “She was telling him to stop and he still had his hands on her,” Casarez told BuzzFeed News. Casarez pushed the boy, who fell to the floor and then ran to fetch his cousins. “They called me a faggot, called me a queer,” said Casarez, who was open about his sexuality.
A couple of days later, Casarez said, he got off the bus on the way home from school, near the apartment complex where he lived with his mother. So, too, did four of the boys who had abused him earlier. Waiting for them was an 18-year-old high school dropout described in the police incident report as a suspected gang member.
“You need to hit this faggot,” one of the group said to the boy Casarez had pushed at school. They surrounded, jostled, and taunted him. “‘Faggot, queer, gay.’ They just kept going on,” Casarez said.
The first blow caught him on the side of his head, leaving his ear ringing. By the time the group scattered, disturbed by a witness who had pulled up in her car, Casarez had a fractured eye socket and two broken teeth. He couldn’t open his mouth properly, and his vision was blurred. “I was pretty much freaking out,” he said.
Casarez needed facial reconstructive surgery, and would later experience panic attacks. The oldest of his attackers was sentenced to seven years’ probation for aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury. Yet despite noting the anti-gay abuse surrounding the incident, neither the police officers on the scene nor the detective who investigated the case logged it as a hate crime — that is, an offense motivated by prejudice against a person’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, gender, gender identity, or disability.
When asked about the incident, the Irving Police Department agreed it should have been reported in the national hate crime statistics compiled by the FBI. It was “an oversight on our part,” Irving Police Department spokesperson James McLellan told BuzzFeed News by email.
This blindness to hate crimes is not an isolated occurrence. Year after year, the vast majority of police departments across the country report zero hate crimes to the FBI. After sifting through more than 2,400 police incident reports from 2016 obtained from 10 of the largest such departments, BuzzFeed News identified 15 assaults in which the cops’ own narratives suggested that the suspect may have been motivated by bias.
Each should at least have been flagged as a possible hate crime and subjected to further scrutiny, according to three independent experts who reviewed the documents.
“If it is a suspected hate crime, that should be tagged and referred up the chain of command,” said Brian Levin, a former New York City cop who heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “What is so striking is that problems that we thought were eliminated are still going on in large jurisdictions.”
Everyone who has studied the issue knows that the FBI’s statistics represent just a fraction of the total hate crimes committed across the US. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, an estimated 250,000 people a year say they are victims. Yet when the FBI unveiled its 2017 national statistics last month, it reported just 7,175 hate crimes, up from 6,121 in 2016.
That’s partly because fewer than half of victims report hate crimes to the police. And even when they do, the information frequently doesn’t get passed to the FBI. The agency was charged with gathering data on hate crimes by Congress in 1990, but these submissions are voluntary: The FBI can’t compel city police departments, county sheriffs, or other local law enforcement agencies to send in their numbers.
Almost 1 in 5 local agencies don’t participate in the FBI’s data collection program. Of those that do, nearly 90% tell the feds that no hate crimes happened on their watch. But that doesn’t always square with their own records. ProPublica, which leads the Documenting Hate project in which BuzzFeed News is a partner, last year reported on clear discrepancies between local statistics of incidents officially marked as “hate crimes,” obtained through its public records requests, and the numbers that ended up in the FBI’s hands.
We wanted to know whether police are failing to properly document hate crimes — and in particular, offenses involving violence — in the first place.
To find out, we submitted public records requests to 30 police departments in the largest cities that reported zero hate crimes over the five years from 2012 to 2016 — then the most recent year in the FBI’s statistics. We asked them to provide their 2016 incident reports for crimes of aggravated assault, which involve an attempt to inflict injury or a threat of violence with a deadly weapon. (In the latest 2017 FBI hate crimes data, 788 of the 7,175 recorded hate crime incidents involved an aggravated assault.)
Ten police departments responded with reports containing narratives describing each incident. In six departments — including three in the Miami metropolitan area and two in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — we identified assaults that arguably should have been recorded as hate crimes.
In part, what we were able to uncover reflects the relatively strong public records laws in Florida and Texas. Other cities, across a dozen more states, denied our requests, failed to respond, provided reports lacking descriptive narratives, or demanded prohibitively high fees to search their records. (Huntsville, Alabama, wanted more than $16,000, complaining that our request would “constitute an excessive burden on personnel.”)
But Florida and Texas also do seem to report suspiciously few hate crimes for such large and diverse states. In the FBI’s 2017 statistics, released last month, participating agencies in Texas reported just 0.68 hate crimes per 100,000 residents, and those in Florida reported 0.71 — much lower than the 2.77 per 100,000 residents in California, 2.8 in New York, and 2.34 across the US as a whole.
The incidents we uncovered provide a flavor of the violent offenses that are missing from the FBI’s national picture of hate crime. As incidents including the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October have shown, hate can exact a devastating toll in the US. But atrocities like this, and the June 2015 massacre of black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, don’t occur in a vacuum — they happen against a backdrop of everyday hatred and violence that some police departments are failing to recognize.
Without documenting these offenses, it’s impossible to develop strategies to turn back the tide of hate, our experts said.
“You can’t think about support services, you can’t think about prevention,” Phyllis Gerstenfeld, a hate crimes researcher at California State University, Stanislaus, told BuzzFeed News. “If we had better data, we’d have a better idea of who the victims are.”
From Miami, the largest city in the US that reported zero hate crimes between 2012 and 2016, we obtained nearly 1,200 incident reports. They had only cursory descriptions, often condensing an incident into a single paragraph. Yet even these brief accounts suggested that the suspects in six of Miami’s aggravated assault reports from 2016 were motivated by bias against their victims.
In one, a 67-year-old Latino man was racially abused by a homeless man (whom the police described as “oriental”) while eating outside a downtown pizza restaurant. “Go back to your country,” the assailant said, then punched the victim in the head.
In another incident, the perpetrator turned up at a residence in the city’s Little Haiti neighborhood and shouted, “What the fuck are these Spanish people doing here?” He stabbed one of two men in the arm with a fork and pursued them, shouting, “I am going to kill you bitches.”
Another incident was phoned in by the sister of a man who was taunted at a gas station about his sexual orientation by an acquaintance and then threatened with a gun. The police report described the victim as being in a “state of fear,” unable to keep still and worried about retaliation because the cops had been called.
The Miami Police Department did not respond to our queries about these reports.
But when BuzzFeed News pressed other departments on why the incidents we flagged weren’t logged as hate crimes, it became clear that the FBI’s guidelines on how to make that decision are open to interpretation — and that police may take a narrow view.
To qualify as a hate crime, the FBI says an offense must be motivated “in whole or in part” by the offender’s bias. Some police officers, it seems, lean more toward the “whole” than the “part.”
“Around the country, in my experience, if it’s not primarily motivated by bias, they miss it,” James Nolan, a sociologist at West Virginia University in Morgantown and formerly the FBI unit chief who oversaw the agency’s hate crime data collection program, told BuzzFeed News.
Some police departments also seem to conflate gathering data on hate crimes with their prosecution. District attorneys are often reluctant to charge offenses as hate crimes, because that means proving the offenders’ motivation in court, which is notoriously difficult. But our experts said that this should not stop incidents from being included in departments’ hate crime statistics, and passed along to the FBI.
Both of these problems were on display in the response from police in Syracuse, New York, after we asked about three incidents. In one, a nightclub bartender was told, “I’ll stab you, nigger,” by a man who was asked to leave the premises. In another, a grocery clerk was similarly threatened with a knife when he refused to give a customer free coffee. “You are Arabic and you kill people, I am going to kill you,” the victim was told.
“For all of the incidents you mentioned, there did not appear to be enough information to prosecute as a hate crime,” Syracuse Police Department spokesperson Richard Helterline told BuzzFeed News by email. “Though the language is clearly inappropriate, there does not appear to be probable cause to say that the victims were solely targeted due to being a protected class.”
After Casarez was attacked, he said, the Irving Police didn’t seem very interested in the bias shown by his assailants. When he was interviewed in November 2016, a couple of weeks after the beating, the detective seemed focused on the fact that the incident was triggered by the altercation at school, rather than the abuse that accompanied the beating. “He kind of said, ‘Just because they’re calling you names doesn’t make it a hate crime.’”
Although it’s true that the FBI says the “mere utterance” of abusive terms isn’t enough to demonstrate that an incident was a hate crime, the agency provides a series of other guidelines to help make the decision — including whether the victim and the perpetrator were from different groups related to the alleged bias, whether the incident would have happened if they were from the same group, and whether a substantial proportion of the community where the incident occurred perceived it to be motivated by bias.
Given the circumstances of the assault on Casarez, the experts we asked to review the incident reports concluded that there was a strong case to consider it a hate crime.
We identified two further possible hate crimes in Mesquite, a suburb on the other side of Dallas. In its responses to our queries about these assaults, the Mesquite Police Department argued that other factors meant they were right to disregard the offenders’ bias.
In one of the Mesquite incidents, Juan Meza, who runs a car wash, told a man with a shopping cart filled with bicycle parts to stop loitering on the premises. The police report mentions “racial slurs.” Meza told BuzzFeed News that the man said to him: “I won’t take any orders from a wetback.”
Meza went to his truck to phone the police, and the man smashed his fist on the driver-side window. When Meza got out of the vehicle, the man came at him with a knife, continuing even after Meza pepper-sprayed him in the face.
The other Mesquite incident happened at a medical facility, after two men, one black and the other Latino, intervened to defend a woman who was having an argument with her husband. The woman’s husband then left, before driving back in his truck, throwing a keychain at his wife’s feet, and confronting the two men, who had followed him outside. He pulled a gun on them, and according to the police report said: “What are you looking at, nigger? I got something for the Mexican, too.”
Our experts said that these should have been flagged as possible hate crimes and sent to a supervisor for review. But Joseph Thompson, a spokesperson for the Mesquite Police, said, “The suspect did use some racial slurs in each one of them, but it was insufficient to be able to prove that the offenses were motivated by racial bias.”
Meza didn’t see it that way. “I think it had to do with me being Hispanic and I was able to tell him to leave,” he said.
Still, when BuzzFeed News approached the Mesquite Police Department again, shortly before this article went to press, a representative admitted that it may have made mistakes in hate crime reporting in the past.
“We always strive to be as open and transparent as possible in our reporting of offenses,” department spokesperson Stephen Biggs told BuzzFeed News by email, “but we would readily admit there are probably a few offenses that could have have been classified differently over the years.”
Other responses suggested that police have different standards for counting incidents to report to the FBI as assaults, as part of the wider Uniform Crime Reporting program, and counting hate crimes.
Christian Lata, a spokesperson for the Hollywood Police Department, just north of Miami, questioned whether the assault we flagged in its jurisdiction was even a crime because charges weren’t pressed. “The victim is not necessarily a legal victim,” he said.
This incident happened at a McDonald’s, where Aysar Fuqaha was speaking in Arabic with a friend. A group of young men started to mock his accent, Fuqaha told BuzzFeed News, and some fries were thrown, hitting him on the back of his neck. As the confrontation escalated, Fuqaha was hit over the head with a chair. “I was bleeding,” he said. “Still I have the mark.”
By the time the police arrived, the assailants had fled, leaving a friend of theirs who, according to the restaurant manager, had tried to break up the fight. This witness disputed Fuqaha and a friend’s account of the incident, claiming that Fuqaha had started the fight. The police report described the witness as “very uncooperative” — he refused to provide any information about his associates.
“This report did not meet the level of hate crime,” Hollywood Police spokesperson Lata said. “The reason why is there were conflicting stories. There was a witness on scene that said the victim was the one that instigated the fight.”
This suggests a double standard, Nolan said, after reviewing the police report. The Hollywood Police logged the incident as an aggravated battery, identified Fuqaha as the victim, and counted it in the aggravated assault statistics it passed on to the FBI for 2016. “Why would you doubt the bias part of it?” Nolan asked.
Most of the police departments we contacted stressed that they followed the FBI’s recommendations for “two-tier” hate crime reporting. This means that responding officers are supposed to flag incidents as a “suspected bias-motivated crime,” so that they can then be reviewed more thoroughly by a supervisor.
But that only works if beat officers diligently flag any incident that might need further review. “We want to encourage a certain amount of false positives as opposed to the converse,” said Levin, the former cop now at California State University, San Bernardino.
Most of the police departments did use incident report forms containing a section for officers to flag possible bias motivation. On Miami’s forms it appeared near the top, one of four possible boxes, alongside those for noting domestic violence, gang-related crimes, and incidents involving drugs. While the other boxes were sometimes changed from their default settings to reflect the nature of the crime, only eight out of nearly 1,200 Miami aggravated assault reports had any entry under bias motivation — which in these cases had been filled, apparently in error, with the words “civil disturbance.”
The Miami Police Department said that, since 2016, it had taken steps to get officers to improve hate crime reporting. In March 2017, the department introduced a revised standard operating procedure, stating that the “complete and proper reporting of any incident involving a hate crime is mandatory.” And in June 2017, it adopted new electronic reporting system that forces officers to make an entry under “bias motivation.”
Getting beat officers to pay more than lip service to recording hate crimes requires training in recognizing them and guidance in filling out incident reports correctly, our experts said. “It could be computer system prompts,” Nolan said.
The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, uses a two-page supplemental form to log details of possible hate crimes, including what group the bias was directed against and noting specific indicators that bias was involved. The LAPD form also contains multiple checkboxes to remind cops to record the victim’s perception of the incident, as well as the demeanor of the victim and suspect.
Particularly important, Levin said, is a clear message from the top of a police department that responding to hate crimes, and supporting the victims, is a priority.
In some police departments, that seems to be lacking. BuzzFeed News made repeated requests to the police in Hialeah, another city in the Miami metropolitan area, for comment on an incident in which a black man eating with his son at a Wendy’s restaurant was threatened by two homeless men, one of whom claimed to have a gun in his bag. “We don’t want niggers in Hialeah. I kill niggers like you,” the suspects yelled, according to the police report, which noted that witnesses corroborated the victim’s account.
“That one seems pretty clear,” said Gerstenfeld of California State University, Stanislaus. “There doesn’t seem to be anything else that precipitated it.”
Sergio Velazquez, Hialeah’s police chief, didn’t respond to our questions about the incident and his department’s policies. After his staff sent copies of the FBI’s guidelines and Florida’s hate crime statute, Velazquez finally sent a terse email: “There is nothing else we need to discuss.”
Our experts stressed that judging whether an incident is a hate crime isn’t always straightforward, pointing to a second incident in Irving that definitely involved bias, but where the actual offense may not have been motivated by hate.
It involved a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang, pulling a gun on a black man. (The FBI’s hate crime reporting guidelines tell police to pay attention to the involvement of known hate groups.) It happened in the parking lot of a convenience store, after the suspect allegedly said racial slurs to the black man, who was with his white wife.
Surveillance video of the incident shows the black man reacting angrily to something that was said from a parked car, in which the white supremacist was sitting in the driver’s seat. The black man exited the passenger door of the SUV that his wife was starting to reverse out of their parking space, but then quickly retreated with his hands in the air when he saw the gun.
That sequence of events could be enough to decide that the incident wasn’t a hate crime, said Nolan, the former FBI unit chief. Even though the suspect was a white supremacist, Nolan said, the crime of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon arguably was a response to the victim advancing toward the suspect’s car, rather than an expression of the suspect’s bias.
(As BuzzFeed News continued to press the Irving Police Department about this incident, its spokesperson said by email: “After further discussion, that report may also be classified as a hate crime offense.”)
Even in ambiguous cases like this, our experts said, incidents should be flagged as possible hate crimes and their existence shared with groups, such as local human relations commissions, that are trying to protect the civil rights of disadvantaged groups.
“It’s important to understand that there was an armed white supremacist in that community,” Robin Toma, executive director of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, told BuzzFeed News.
“It still has that negative impact on the victim,” said Joyce Sanchez, a hate crimes specialist with Orange County Human Relations in Santa Ana, California, adding that groups like hers want to know about all incidents involving hate, so they can offer support to the people affected.
There are few signs that hate crimes reporting has improved since 2016. Of the six cities whose incident reports we queried, just one — Hollywood — reported any hate crimes in 2017, a single anti-gay incident involving vandalism or the destruction of property.
Across the nation, there’s little room for complacency. Even in California, where police have a better record of recognizing hate crimes than their counterparts in Florida and Texas, a report from the state auditor released in May concluded that “law enforcement has not been doing enough to identify, report, and respond to these crimes.” A detailed review of three agencies — the LAPD, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and the San Francisco State University Police Department — found that each had failed to identify some hate crimes. And around one-third of state agencies in a wider survey had no method to encourage the public to report them.
“You can’t address a problem if you don’t even know what the problem is,” Gerstenfeld said. ●