Demonstrators wearing face masks and holding signs take part in a rally "Love Our Communities: Build Collective Power" to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence in Los Angeles on March 13.

Why hate crime data can't capture the true scope of anti-Asian violence

Updated 1918 GMT (0318 HKT) March 18, 2021

(CNN)There has been a marked rise in anti-Asian violence across the United States, an issue that once again rattled a community on edge after the Tuesday mass shooting deaths of eight people at spas in the Atlanta area, six of whom were Asian women.

Police have said it is too early to know the shooter's motive, but the attacks come at a time of increased reports of anti-Asian racism and communities sounding the alarm about a wave of violent incidents. The true scope of the problem, though, is difficult to quantify because of poor data collection and low rates of reporting.
In January, President Joe Biden acknowledged the difficulties in reporting on these statistics, signing a memorandum condemning the rise in attacks towards the Asian community and asking the attorney general to "expand collection of data and public reporting regarding hate incidents against such individuals."
Hate crime and bias incident data released by police departments and federal agencies is just a fraction of actual incidents, and deficiencies in hate-crime reporting have led organizers and activists to take it upon themselves to collect data on their own. Even then, the definitions of hate crime may differ, leaving policymakers with competing datasets that don't capture the scope of the problem.

Hate crime data is unreliable and underreported

The Justice Department and FBI are required by a 1990 federal law called the Hate Crime Statistics Act to publish an annual report on hate crime statistics. The annual report serves as the most comprehensive look at hate crime across the country.
These statistics are likely a vast undercount because law enforcement agencies are not required to submit their data to the FBI for their annual crime report. There are more than 18,000 agencies in the United States and more than 3,000 did not submit their crime statistics in 2019. Of the almost 16,000 agencies that did submit data, about 1 in 7 reported any instances of a hate crime.
"Some of those reports are probably true zeroes, but it's really unlikely that all of those jurisdictions had zero hate crimes," said Brendan Lantz, a criminology professor at Florida State University who researches hate and bias crimes.
Without dedicated resources, law enforcement agencies might not be trained to spot and report hate crimes accurately, creating the impression that hate crimes may be occurring with far less frequency than is accurate.
The FBI's data may also be incomplete because in some jurisdictions, local prosecutors, not police, decide what is charged as a hate crime. The federal government does not collect hate crime statistics from local prosecutors or courts.
However, major cities have reported a troubling rise in racist crimes targeting the Asian community.
The New York Police Department reported 28 arrests for hate crimes targeting Asians in 2020, up from three in 2019 and two in 2018. The Los Angeles Police Department also reported an increase: 15 anti-Asian hate crimes were reported in 2020, up from seven in 2019 and 11 in 2018.
Some activists and officials have attributed the rise in anti-Asian bias incidents and hate crimes to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which originated in China, as well as to inflammatory rhetoric by former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as "the China virus."
"Hate crimes reflect power dynamics within a society," said Lantz. "If former President Donald Trump can legitimize bias through his own rhetoric, then people feel as if their bigotry and hate crimes are condoned."

Victims of hate crimes are often unlikely to report to the police

Longstanding distrust of law enforcement, language barriers and