WASHINGTON – Hate crime rates in the state are decreasing, according to an FBI report released Monday, but county law enforcement agencies said the problem may actually be worse than reported.
According to the FBI report, Maryland had 150 hate crimes, or one per 37,455 people, last year. The rate declined from 212 hate crimes in 2006.
Jurisdiction changes; different reporting guidelines at county, state and federal levels; misinterpretation in reporting guidelines; and the voluntary nature of state reporting — all contribute to the differences in hate crime numbers, law enforcement groups and experts said.
“To me, (hate crime numbers) are always skewed,” said David Baker, hate crimes coordinator and crime prevention specialist at the Montgomery County Police Department.
What may also skew the FBI’s hate crime numbers for Maryland is the absence of Charles County figures, although the FBI included county hate crime statistics in 2006 and 2005.
If Charles County and Montgomery County hate crime numbers were fully reported by the FBI for 2007, the decrease would fall from a 29 percent improvement to 16.5 percent better.
Charles County Police said they reported 17 hate crimes to the State Police, but the FBI did not include the numbers because they did not fit the agency’s guidelines.
“There was a terrible increase within the last three years (in Charles County), it was very high,” said William Braxton, president of the Charles County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Most hate crimes are “kept under the rug,” Braxton said, or called “vandalism” or something other than a hate crime.
“Authorities will rather deal with vandalism than to have the stigma that they are still having problems with race crimes this day in age.”
The Charles County Police spokeswoman did not provide historical hate crime figures by deadline.
Montgomery County showed a decrease in hate crimes last year, according to the FBI report, but, according to Baker, that stems from a decrease in reporting of hate crimes.
“Most of this state doesn’t report hate crimes, but (Montgomery County) and Baltimore County are pretty aggressive,” Baker said. “I don’t believe the numbers have gone down. Victims’ reporting has gone down, not the incidents.”
Local and federal figures differ significantly. For example, the FBI quoted 28 hate crimes based on race and religion in Montgomery County last year, but county data showed 38 such hate crimes.
“The State Police has refined its criteria in the past two years and in that refining they put more weight on the motivation of the offender and that could be a reason for the number change,” said Cpl. Michael Hill, spokesman for the Baltimore County Police.
The FBI criteria also emphasizes offender motivation in determining hate crime status, while local law enforcement agencies, including Baltimore County, focus on the victim’s perception.
The FBI looks at 11 types of offenses that include “murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, aggravated assault, simple assault, and intimidation (crimes against persons); and robbery, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, arson, and destruction/damage/vandalism (crimes against property).”
In addition, Baker said many hate crimes go unreported because many victims report crimes to advocacy groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP when they feel uncomfortable reporting to police.
“I think we have to be careful at any one year drop at anything,” said Howard County Chief of Police William McMahon, whose county, like many others in Maryland, records and enforces not just crimes but all hate-biased incidents. “All crime is underreported and I don’t know if hate crimes are any more so.”