FBI statistics show the number of hate crimes is on the rise nationally, but very few are reported in Alaska. Local officials say that’s not necessarily because they aren’t happening, they just don’t know about them. A recent class taught community members how to recognize and report a hate crime.
When someone commits a crime like vandalism or assault because of a bias against a certain group, that’s a hate crime. It includes things like spray painting racist messages on a mosque or threatening to hurt a transgender person for moving into a certain neighborhood. Some things – like harassment or vandalism at a school – are usually investigated at a local level. But some are taken on by the FBI.
FBI special agent Steve Forrest, who taught the class, said it’s often really hard to prove that a violent act is a hate crime. Hate has to be an obvious factor – like someone shouting derogatory terms while assaulting someone else.
“Other hate crimes that involve violence, if you’re going to report those as a hate crime, we’re gonna need to prove that the individual targeted someone because of their race,” Forrest said. “So any sort of history, maybe, of racial animus toward a group. Maybe something we could use to build a case if it’s not more obvious than that.”
Forrest said only eight hate crimes were reported last year and none were reported directly to the FBI. But he doesn’t think that’s because they aren’t happening.
“I really doubt that we’re getting full reporting on the incidents that happen,” he said. “And that could be that they not being reported to the police properly or the police aren’t categorizing them as hate crimes. We don’t get a lot of calls about them, but I think the public in general has a lack of awareness that the public would investigate a hate crime.”
Forrest said he wants people to call him if they suspect a hate crime or see vandalism at a religious building. But some things that people may think fall into the category, like hate speech, are legally protected.
“People say a lot of horrible things, unfortunately, and there’s not much we can do about that,” Forrest said. “But it can evolve into threats and harassment. It can evolve into harassment, or some type of thing, but for the most part that’s going to be free speech, as bad as that may seem.”
Bajek Deng, from the South Sudanese community in Anchorage, attended the class so he could teach others about their rights. He said he sees discrimination but many people in the community don’t know that they can report it to local police and the FBI.
“We need to learn the law and to tell our community that some people they don’t know their rights and some people do something bad to them but they don’t know where they go,” Deng said.
Lucy Hansen with the Polynesian Association of Alaska helped coordinate the event
“You know with what’s been going on around in the world and with our new leaders for America coming up, I think it’s an important time for everyone to learn and understand hate crimes and to know your rights as an individual,” Hansen said.
Hansen said oftentimes people don’t report hate crimes because they are afraid of interacting with the police but classes like this can ease the problem.
FBI agent Forrest said they want to know about potential hate crimes. Even if they don’t rise to the level of federal crimes, it can help the agency track potential trends and threats.
You can call the Anchorage field office at (907) 276-4441.