The graffiti said “JEW” in big, red letters. A family in West Seattle found it scrawled on the side of a garage. Another message referring to Jewish people as thieves was spray painted onto the pavement.
The vandalism, first reported by West Seattle Blog, is another in an escalating trend of hate crimes that have been reported in Seattle and in communities across the country.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recorded a 32 percent increase in the total number of hate crimes reported in Washington state and nearly a doubling in Seattle, according to recently released figures. Those numbers come with an asterisk, however:
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) records crimes reported by local law enforcement agencies. Those definitions have not always been consistent. For instance, it was only in 2013 that the agency updated its definition of “rape” from “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will” to a broader classification that encompassed all genders and other forms of assault.
So, it should be taken in context when the numbers show that the city of Seattle reported 234 hate crimes in 2017 compared with nine in Alabama, a state that has more than four times the number of people.
The Seattle Police Department (SPD) has created new standards for criminal and noncriminal offenses in order to capture the full scope of bias-motivated incidents whether they rise to the level of a hate crime — legally categorized as malicious harassment — or when a crime or incident includes an “element of bias,” said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, spokesperson for SPD.
The SPD classifies a hate crime as a crime against person or property that is perpetrated because of a person’s race, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, housing status and other classifications. That could mean the graffiti in West Seattle or a physical assault, Whitcomb said.
A crime with an element of bias is one where the crime itself wasn’t motivated by hate, but where hate is nonetheless a factor. Whitcomb used the example of a shoplifter who uses a slur against someone trying to stop them from exiting a store. A noncriminal bias incident is an act that isn’t technically criminal, but still demonstrates an antipathy to someone based on their identity.
“If someone is driving on the street, yells a slur out the window and is never seen again,” Whitcomb explained, “It’s terrifying if you’re the person who was shouted at because you don’t know what will happen next.”
Collecting additional data about these kinds of incidents helps SPD have a better idea of what is going on in the city, which helps its mission to “protect and serve” citizens. Whether it was a crime motivated by bias against a protected class or not, Whitcomb says, “We want people to trust that you can call 911 period and you’ll get that same quality of response.”
The SPD’s Bias Crimes Unit is only a few years old, and investigations are coordinated by Det. Beth Wareing. The goal is to respond to incidents and do community outreach to encourage people to report hate and bias-related crimes to the police.
The department gathers those statistics and displays them on a dashboard, available online, so that the public can learn what kinds of crimes or incidents are occurring and where. And unlike the FBI statistics, these numbers are current.
The number of hate crimes and crimes with bias elements are on the rise compared to 2017, and so are bias incidents. Whitcomb hopes that the latter category indicates that people are increasingly comfortable with calling the police to reort these kinds of incidents.
“Hate crimes are often compared to domestic violence and sexual assault,” Whitcomb said. “They are deeply personal crimes that we suspect go largely underreported.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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