FBI reports 44% increase in Wisconsin hate crimes last year. Here’s why that’s only a small part of the story.

Report: Hate Crime Laws Lack Uniformity Across The Us
Nam Y. Huh

FILE - This March 20, 2021, file photo shows people holding signs as they attend a rally to support Stop Asian Hate at the Logan Square Monument in Chicago. A national coalition of civil rights groups will release on Wednesday, July 28, 2021, a comprehensive, state-by-state review of hate crime laws in the United States. Members of the coalition say the report sets the stage for bolstering the efficacy of current law and addresses racial disparities in how the laws are enforced.

MADISON, Wis. — Hate crimes rose by 44% last year in Wisconsin, according to the latest annual FBI hate crime report. In an ongoing uptick over the past several years, the number rose to 72 last year, up from 50 hate crimes in 2019.

The data, however, has long been criticized as an underreported number, and a News 3 Investigation earlier this year found dozens of hate crimes that were charged with the hate crime statute by prosecutors but not officially recorded by police as a hate crime–the metric the FBI uses to count hate crimes around the country.

Additionally, hundreds of reporting police departments said they had no hate crimes at all in their jurisdiction last year, according to FBI data. Almost 400 police departments in Wisconsin haven’t reported a hate crime at all in at least five years, according to our News 3 Investigation, which relied on data provided by the Wis. Department of Justice.

In fact, because of the evolving nature of the FBI database (and the dynamic state-level databases it’s based on), the numbers of crimes recorded with the FBI has changed. In May, the hate crime number reported for 2019 had been 73; today, it now sits at 50.

Rise in anti-Black, anti-Asian crimes credited with nationwide surge

As protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis enveloped the country in civil unrest, anti-Black hate crimes rose sharply last year by 43% nationwide. In Wisconsin, the number more than doubled–but it’s difficult to quantify considering the number of hate crime investigations that aren’t included in those statistics.

Toshiana Northington of Madison is one of those stories. She and her children were physically attacked in an East Madison Woodman’s parking lot last summer by a man she says used racial slurs as he kicked and punched her.

Her attacker, David Lythjohan, is facing four criminal charges for the incident, all of them including the hate crime penalty enhancer. But Madison police didn’t report it as a hate crime to the DOJ.

“You could have a certain crime type that qualifies under the state statute that our district attorney chooses to prosecute and investigated it as that, but because it’s a certain type of crime, (incident based reporting) doesn’t allow for it to be categorized as a hate crime,” assistant police chief Vic Wahl (now retired) explained to News 3 at the time.

Northington, however, felt failed by the system when she learned her case wasn’t counted as a hate crime.

“It wasn’t fair that they didn’t write down a proper report,” she said. “It wasn’t fair that they didn’t have a good understanding of what happened in the situation.”

Anti-Asian hate crimes received a similar treatment in official reports; they’re almost entirely unrecorded last year in Wisconsin, even after several were reported to police. The FBI counts just one hate crime against Asians last year, down from two when News 3 Investigates first reported the State of Hate series. But that belies several other hate crime prosecutions for anti-Asian crimes, where people assaulted or abused Asians in public while blaming them for the pandemic.

The U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland acknowledged the underreporting in a statement, while crediting the nationwide increase of hate crimes as largely fueled by anti-Black and anti-Asian crimes.

“These statistics show a rise in hate crimes committed against Black and African-Americans, already the group most often victimized. Notably, they show a rise in hate crimes committed against members of the Asian-American Pacific Islander community. This also confirms what we have seen and heard through our work and from our partners,” he said in a statement.

Asian advocates and lawmakers have been clear: the issue isn’t new; 2020 just raised its profile as people accused Asians and Asian-Americans of being bearers of a virus originating in China.

“I think what’s most troubling about that is people think the rise in Anti-Asian hat e crimes is just because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” state Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) said. “It certainly has been exasperated, but anti-Asian hate is nothing new. It has been prevalent since the first Asians came to this country.”

A possible solution to underreporting: Community hotlines

In an interview in early August, Rep. Hong said a solution she’d like to see get closer examination is community hotlines or portals where people can report hate crimes and get follow-up from social services or other community services, rather than just law enforcement. That could help reduce a fear of interaction with police among some marginalized communities, she explained. All too often, victims of hate crimes have barriers with reporting.

“Sometimes it’s better to just keep your head down. It’s safer to be invisible,” she explained of the thought process. “They think it’s just going to create more issues for themselves and their families.”

But as long as data drives policy and legislation, she believes, finding ways to make reporting hate crimes easier should be a priority–and start with community leaders, not just law enforcement.

“It’s really important that we have regular reporting, and that the people who are doing that reporting are out in communities talking about the fact that hate crime reporting is very important,” she said.