The number of hate crimes in the District rose sharply in 2018, nearly doubling the total attributed to bias in the city just two years earlier, according to city statistics.
Crimes based on sexual orientation topped the list, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, a research center at California State University at San Bernardino. The center analyzed the rise in hate crimes in the District and in cities across the nation in its annual report on bias crimes.
“D.C. is at an all-time high,” said Brian Levin, the professor who led the research study. The District logged 209 hate crimes in 2018, up from 179 in 2017, 107 in 2016, and 66 in 2015. Of the 20 largest cities Levin analyzed, all but four saw an uptick in hate crimes from 2017 to 2018, and the District’s two-year rise was among the most significant.
City leaders responded to the data with concern. Mónica Palacio, who heads the District’s Office of Human Rights, said the surge in hate crimes is a difficult problem for the city to solve, with national politics driving the rise in hate and, she suspects, some of the actors coming from outside of the city.
“In the District, we’re somewhat of a national target, right? If somebody spray-paints a symbol of hate or hangs a symbol of hate in the District, the echo effect is much larger,” she said. “I think the mayor puts out a very strong statement about our values as a city: inclusion, respect, peaceful coexistence . . . respect for people’s life choices, for who they love and how they pray. Those values are a powerful statement that we as a District stand for these beliefs.”
Hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity accounted for nearly half of the city’s total hate crimes in 2018.
The District recorded 61 crimes in 2018 based on sexual orientation, up from 40 in 2016 and 56 in 2017 (an increase of more than 50 percent over two years). That was followed by 49 crimes based on ethnicity, up from 13 in 2016 and 40 in 2017 (an increase of more than 300 percent in two years) and 39 based on race, up from 13 in 2016 and 47 in 2017 (also a 300 percent increase in two years). The District also logged 36 crimes based on gender identity, up from 19 in 2016 and 13 in 2017 (more than 50 percent higher in 2018 than two years ago); and 12 based on religion, a 33 percent decrease from 2016’s 18 crimes and the same as 2017.
Stephania Mahdi, the co-chair of the DC Anti-Violence Project, which focuses on violence against the LGBTQ community, said the rise in crimes based on sexuality and gender identity has been apparent to her. Her organization offers free mental health counseling to victims of violence; so many victims have sought that support recently that the group has hired a second social worker.
“The political climate doesn’t help. We are backtracking as a country, when it comes to how we respect and view and talk about and talk with the LGBTQ community,” she said. “You see a rise in anti-LGBTQ policies on the national level. . . . That all adds into this climate where we’re seeing people feeling more vulnerable than they may have ever felt before.
D.C. police also reported 10 crimes based on political affiliation in 2017 and 11 crimes in 2018, after tallying just zero, one or two crimes per year from 2011 through 2016. Levin noted that the District is one of the few cities in the country that counts political affiliation as a basis for hate crimes, alongside more common categories like anti-black, anti-Latino, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-gay crimes.
“We’re entrenched in [political] polarization now, more so than we’ve been in decades. Conflicts are not just being divided along racial and ethnic lines, but we’re also seeing these political conflicts taking place that end up in violence,” Levin said. “It’s creating a new hate crime, based on politics.”
A D.C. police lieutenant, who did not have permission from the city to be named in the press, said these politically motivated crimes include destruction of property and threats that arose out of heated debates about politics.
The police lieutenant said he believes the higher number of hate crimes overall is attributable, in part, to residents’ increased awareness, as hate crimes have been reported in the national news, that they can report such incidents to police. In addition, he said, every D.C. police officer was trained on bias crimes in 2015, and may have since become better at properly reporting incidents.
“The science of reporting is tricky. The more aggressively you try to prevent an activity, sometimes the more people report on it,” the D.C. Office of Human Rights’ Palacio said.
But both Palacio and the police lieutenant, as well as outside experts who study hate crimes, said they believe it is not just an increase in reporting — a larger volume of hate crimes simply seem to be occurring.
Many of the cities in the study use different criteria to report their data. Some, like Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Portland, Ore., and Louisville, break down racially motivated crimes by the race of the victim. Anti-black violence was the most common type of hate crime in 2018 in all of those cities. Crimes motivated by race or ethnicity, less specifically, were the top type of hate crime in Houston, Philadelphia and San Francisco, while crimes motivated by bias against gay men and lesbians were the most common type in Seattle and Sacramento, and the second-most-common type in cities that included Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and San Francisco.
Crimes against Jews were also common — the third-most-common type in Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, which are the second-, third- and fourth-most-populous cities in the nation, respectively. In the most populous city (with by far the largest Jewish population), New York City, anti-Semitic crimes were more than four times as common as any other type of hate crime in the city: a total of 189 crimes during the year.
Several cities, including New York, Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, and Seattle logged at least a dozen anti-white crimes. Seven crimes in Columbus targeted American Indians, and six crimes in Seattle targeted Asians. In Cleveland, three anti-Protestant crimes were recorded.
City and state laws vary on how a bias motivation makes a crime different from any other violation. In the District, a perpetrator can face a higher fine or sentence if he is found guilty of a hate crime.
“What we see with people who commit hate crimes, they don’t specialize in one group. They feel that there are people who shouldn’t be here and they’d like to get rid of them from our communities, and they will attack anyone,” said Jack McDevitt, the director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. “They may go looking for someone who’s Latino, and if they don’t find someone, they’ll look for someone who’s Jewish. All groups appear to be experiencing increases.”
McDevitt blamed the increase on multiple factors, including heated words about immigrants and minorities from political leaders. “This is heard by some haters as permission to go ahead and act,” he said. He added that the ease of finding hateful beliefs online can fuel people to act violently.
James Nolan, a West Virginia University sociologist who studies hate crimes following a career in the police and the FBI, said he found this study’s results convincing, although hate crimes are difficult to track and often inconsistently categorized.
“We found this basically everywhere. Hate crimes are up for the country. And it really corresponds with the heated political rhetoric around the 2016 election,” he said.
The Washington-area office of the Anti-Defamation League, an advocacy group that works to prevent anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination, said the study confirmed what it has witnessed: rising hate in the nation’s capital.
“It’s been well documented that the extreme right and white supremacy, that was elevated. And several of those individuals are local, and they continue to try to be provocative and express their views,” said Doron Ezickson, the ADL’s regional director, adding that a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan is active locally.
The Rev. Thomas Bowen, the director of the D.C. mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs, said that as the number of hate crimes in the city climbed, he has developed a protocol for responding when a vulnerable religious or racial community is targeted. He makes sure, for example, that it is not just graffiti that gets cleaned up when a house of worship is vandalized; police officers and civic volunteers stop by to talk with congregants to ensure they feel safe.
“These incidents definitely do not reflect on who we are as the District of Columbia, and it definitely doesn’t reflect on a majority of residents in Washington, D.C. . . . What we value is love and our neighbors,” Bowen said.