The FBI released what seemed to be good news this month, that the agency counted 7,262 instances of hate crimes in 2021 — a drop from 8,263 the year before. In fact, experts said hate crimes might have trended sharply higher last year; the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism charted a 21 percent surge in 20 states over the same period. One reason for the discrepancy, the Washington Post said in an editorial: The FBI relies on state and local police departments to report crime number, and only 11,883 of 18,812 law enforcement agencies submitted their 2021 hate-crimes data. The nation’s two largest cities, New York and Los Angeles, were among the non-reporters. FBI crime data is supposed to give the public, criminal justice researchers and law enforcement agents hard numbers so that they have more than just instinct and anecdote — and the claims of demagogic politicians — to characterize what is happening. Real numbers provide insights into what is working and what is not. They also show how often police respond to crime with force, against what types of people and in what situations. Voluntary compliance from state and local departments falls well short of what is necessary.
This is not the first time the FBI has struggled to collect reliable statistics. The Post has tracked fatal police shootings since 2015, painstakingly sorting through news and social media reports, local law enforcement records and other sources. The newspaper found that police shoot and kill about 1,000 people every year — including 1,084 over the past 12 months. The number of fatal police shootings has been rising, yet the FBI has reported a decline between 2015 and 2021. The FBI’s records contain only about one-third of the 7,000 fatal police shootings the Post counted. Statistics provided voluntarily by local law enforcement agencies underplay both the scale of the problem and the urgency of taking measures to address it — for instance, by updating use-of-force guidelines and investing in de-escalation training. The FBI has embarked on a broad effort to track fatalities and serious bodily injury committed by law enforcement officers, plus instances in which police officers fire their weapons. Yet the bureau almost had to shut down the program for lack of response from local police departments. Congress should intervene, the Post says. Federal appropriations to help police departments report their crime numbers are an obvious place to start. At the same time, Congress should condition the large number of various crime-fighting grants it sends to state and local governments on departments reporting their numbers. Bills such as 2021’s George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, which passed the House but not the Senate, would have created such a system.