Georgia hate crimes spike in 2021; underreporting remains an issue

A police officer is seen on scene where a shooting occurred, Monday, Aug. 22, 2022, at a condominium in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Hate crimes in Georgia are the highest they’ve been in 30 years, according to a supplemental report released by the FBI in March.

Experts say while the FBI’s numbers provide a useful glimpse into how police enforce hate crime laws, they represent only a fraction of bias-related incidents.

The report, mandated under the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, is compiled from the voluntary submissions of law enforcement agencies.

The FBI said it released an earlier report in December suggesting hate crimes were trending downward, but that it did not provide an accurate representation of overall trends because scores of local police departments have struggled to adjust to a new tracking system – the National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS – that came online in 2021.

An unknown number of departments do not report any data at all.

FBI spokesperson Holly Morris said the bureau puts forth efforts to maximize participation in its various programs through robust engagement and outreach. While it remains engaged with non-transitioned agencies, she said, “It is unknown when all agencies can expect to become NIBRS certified due to various reasons.”

“The overall takeaway from the supplemental report is more agency coverage, resulting in better representation than was available in the original 2021 report,” Morris said.

The new numbers, supplemented by state and local data reporting, show that overall hate crimes in the U.S. rose by nearly 12% in 2021, with victims most commonly targeted because of their race or ethnicity.

Hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Sikhs and bisexual people all more than doubled. Meanwhile, attacks against Black, White and LGBTQ people comprised nearly half of all incidents. Attacks against Jewish people accounted for more than half of the religiously motivated incidents, according to the FBI.

There were similar trends in Georgia.

In 2021, police departments in the state reported 292 hate crimes to the FBI, compared to 195 in 2020. The latest numbers include 54 more hate crimes than in the original report from December.

Michael Lieberman, senior policy counsel for hate and extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that before 2019, no other year in the last 30 years had Georgia reported even a hundred.

“Sometimes it’s really good when the numbers of reported hate crimes goes up, because what it means is that law enforcement agencies are now trained better to identify, report and respond to hate crimes,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman said thorough reporting is crucial to preventing and prosecuting them.

“It’s not helpful to say there’s 50,000 hate crimes,” Lieberman said. “What’s helpful is to know there’s six hate crimes that have been reported in this neighborhood in the last two months because now you can try to deter hate crimes, you can allocate resources.”

Before 2021, Georgia was one of only four states without a hate crime law. The murder of a 25-year-old black man, Ahmaud Arbery, chased down by two white men while jogging in a neighborhood near Brunswick changed that.

It is now coming into play in the March 2021 shootings at Atlanta-area spas, where eight people were killed, including six Asian women. It is the first time it is being applied to a Fulton County case.

Supporters say adding these enhancements help curb such crimes and adds to their legitimacy with the public. 

John Tures is a political science professor at LaGrange College. He said he advocated for Georgia’s hate crime law and has spent the last several years researching how states with such protections compare to those without them.

Tures said Georgia has one of the best bills in the country in terms of how many different people are protected.

“I would predict that you’ll probably see another two or three years of such crimes rising, [with] people understanding what’s going on and taking it seriously,” Tures said.

More than 400 police departments in Georgia participated in the FBI’s hate crime data collection in 2021, but only 79 reported one or more hate crimes. Atlanta reported ten.

The Atlanta Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.

The FBI is slated to release its 2022 numbers later this year.