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Hawaii News

New system will let police submit data on hate crimes

Hawaii is the only state that doesn’t participate in the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics Program. Instead, state officials currently compile their own hate crimes report with information collected from local prosecutors rather than police.

The Associated Press identified more than 2,700 city police and county sheriff’s departments across the country that have not submitted a single hate crime report for the FBI’s annual crime tally during the past six years — about 17 percent of all city and county law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Advocates worry that the lack of a comprehensive, annual accounting disguises the extent of bias crimes at a time of heightened racial, religious and ethnic tensions. The nation was stunned last June when nine black parishioners were shot dead at a Charleston, S.C., church in an attack labeled a hate crime, and community groups have reported a notable increase in violence against Muslims and mosques in the wake of last year’s terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. Gay and transgender people also are regular targets.

A better accounting of hate crimes, the FBI and other proponents say, would not only increase awareness, but also boost efforts to combat such crimes with more resources for law enforcement training and community outreach.

The FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Filing reports for the federal count is voluntary, and guidelines call for reports to be submitted even if they list zero hate crimes, a signal to both the FBI and the community that local departments are taking such crimes seriously.

FBI Director James Comey has called on all agencies to do a more aggressive job tracking hate crimes, and also has initiated training sessions on bias attacks for hundreds of law enforcement officers nationwide.

Because Hawaii’s four local police agencies don’t send such information to the FBI, the nine hate crimes recorded in a statewide report from 2009 to 2014 were not reflected in the national statistics. The state’s most recent report includes two hate crimes in 2015, both on Kauai involving anti-Caucasian epithets.

The state is moving toward a new police reporting system that will involve sending hate crime reports to the FBI.

In the meantime, some legal experts and community advocates expressed concern that the current system might not truly reflect Hawaii’s hate crime climate.

“Leaving it up to local prosecutors to exercise discretion is probably resulting in skewing information about these matters,” said Eric Seitz, a Honolulu attorney who represented two gay women who recently settled their lawsuit against Honolulu for $80,000 over allegations a police officer unnecessarily arrested them for kissing in a grocery store.

It’s driven by a desire to protect Hawaii’s image in the tourism industry, he said: “(The state) doesn’t want negative things to be publicized.”

Joshua Wisch, special assistant to Hawaii’s attorney general, said that’s not what motivates how the state reports hate crimes.

“By placing the point of data collection at the prosecution level, Hawaii’s program utilizes limited police resources more efficiently, avoids false positives, and is based on incidents that clearly meet the state’s legal definition of hate crimes,” he said in a statement.

Avoiding false positives is important, but there could be some incidents that don’t make it to court for various reasons, including not finding a suspect or cooperative witness, Kauai Prosecutor Justin Kollar said.

“And therefore, those cases wouldn’t be included in the tally or in the report,” he said. “So that’s the concern that does come up, that it’s actually being underreported because of the way the process is set up.”

The current process works well for police, Maj. Randy Apele of the Hawaii Police Department said. “It works for us because if it’s designated as a possible hate crime, we flag it so that prosecutors can properly investigate it,” he said.

Hate crimes aren’t underreported, because the state’s reports accurately reflect how rare such incidents are in the islands, Apele said. “I think in Hawaii we have such a melting pot of nationalities, cultures,” he said. “Everyone lives cooperatively with the aloha spirit in Hawaii and is very accepting.”

Hawaii does submit data on violent crimes such as homicide and rape to the FBI.

The state will send hate crime reports to the FBI when it switches to a new police filing system with that crime reporting built into it, Wisch said. Each of Hawaii’s police departments will transition to the new process on different schedules, beginning as early as this fall, he said.

Hawaii will benefit from that change, Kollar said. “Consistency, I think, would be beneficial just so that we know where we stand in relation to other states and are better able to assess whether or not we’re really doing our job as law enforcement.”

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