Texas, hate crimes

Texas Hate Crime Reporting Falls Drastically Short: Law Enforcement Faces Tough Questions

Alarming disparities in hate crime reporting highlight urgent need for accountability and training.

In 2001, Texas enacted the James Byrd Act, named after a Black man, James Byrd Jr., who was violently dragged to his death by three white men in 1998. This law mandates that all state agencies must report hate crimes to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which subsequently shares this data with the FBI. Nevertheless, a significant problem has arisen: many of these hate crimes are not being reported due to a disparity in how police departments in Texas define and classify hate crimes compared to the perceptions of those who are typically targeted by such offenses.

The Texas Tribune conducted an analysis of FBI data from 2022, which they used to conclude that 82% of all agencies that reported crime data to the FBI reported zero hate crimes. Compounding this underreporting issue is the fact that some departments that did report hate crimes communicated to the Tribune that they did so in error. According to the Office of Court Administration, only 36 of the thousands of hate crimes reported to the state have resulted in actual hate crime charges. Rachel Caroll Rivas, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said this creates a larger problem for groups like the SPLC, “We can’t put resources into prevention or figure out how we can address these crimes if we don’t have the data.”

According to a report from the Anti-Defamation League, Texas led the nation in white supremacist propaganda in 2022, which goes hand in hand with the 89% increase in antisemitic attacks in the state since 2021. In addition to these attacks, the Human Rights Watch says that eight trans or gender non-conforming people were killed in Texas in 2021, which is the most of any state.

According to the Tribune, the process to report a hate crime is not cumbersome or complicated, all the police are required to do is check a box. In Texas, the two groups most likely to experience a hate crime are Black people and LGBTQ+ people, representing 35% and nearly 20% of reported hate crimes respectively according to the FBI Crime Report. As can be reasonably expected, big metro areas like Houston, Dallas, and Austin are responsible for the majority of the state’s hate crimes although they are not often associated with hate crimes in Texas. In East Texas, which encompasses Jasper, where Bryd’s life was taken from him, as well as Vidor, two towns considered by Black East Texans to be avoided if at all possible, law enforcement agencies say their reports of hate crimes were essentially clerical mistakes. 

Andy Erbaugh, the public information officer for the Tyler Police Department, says that the severity of hate crimes requires additional scrutiny. “It’s a serious thing to say a crime was anti-Black when you don’t have any evidence it’s anti-Black,” Erbaugh said. “We are going to have a training for officers so they can understand when they need to put that there was a bias.”

Rural departments, like the ones in Jasper, Vidor, and Tyler, three East Texas towns, are generally less likely than departments in major metropolitan cities to report hate crimes. According to the Tribune, of all the hate crimes reported in Texas since 1991, only 7% of them came from counties with a population of fewer than 50,000 people. According to Jack McDevitt, the Director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University who has trained police officers nationwide, “If it’s a racially motivated murder, [police] are going to investigate it that way. If it’s a minor thing and somebody says, ‘go back to your country’ and writes that on someone’s home, they’re gonna say, ‘maybe it was just kids.’”

McDevitt added, “You find that they missed a lot of the less serious events.” 

McDevitt also said that hate crimes carry a specific weight and burden of proof that requires extra investigation. “If someone reports a theft like someone stole my wallet. There’s a wallet and it’s missing. That’s pretty easy,” McDevitt said. “If they say they hit me because I’m LGBTQ, then you have to find out if they really hit them and then you have to find out why they were motivated to do that. That’s harder to do.”

In 2018, the Justice Department met with law enforcement leaders and other leaders from around the country to find ways to help officers identify and investigate hate crimes. As a result of this meeting, in 2019, the Arlington Police Department expanded its hate crime reporting policy to include incidents in which no crime was reported. This simple adjustment to departmental policy led to an increase in not only documentation of hate crime incidents, but in reports of hate crimes to the Texas Department of Public Safety, as outlined in the James Byrd Jr. Act. 

Cpl. Chris Holder, who developed the department’s eight-hour hate crime training course with Cpl. Jastin Williams told the Tribune that the course creates an open line of communication between the citizenry and the police, before briefly emphasizing that a hate crime is at its core, a crime against an entire community. “One of the big things that we talk about a lot when we teach this course is that a hate crime doesn’t just impact that individual,” said Holder. “It has a ripple effect.”

In 2004, six years after the murder of James Byrd Jr., his grave was violated. Racial epithets were discovered on his headstone. The Jasper Police Department arrested two white teenagers and charged them with criminal mischief, but declined to place hate crime charges on the teens, despite the clear use of language associated with racist hatred.

Louvon Byrd Harris, Byrd Jr.’s sister, said that their refusal to call a hate crime a hate crime amounted to disturbing her brother’s rest, saying, “To torment his grave is a continuation of hate and it should have been charged accordingly. He couldn’t walk in peace when he was alive, and now as (a) dead (man) he can’t even rest in peace.”

RELATED CONTENT: Black South Carolina Couple Finds Burning Cross In Front Of House