Are Tennessee hate crimes really declining?

A new report offers encouraging signs for cautious optimism

Published December 7, 2017 4:58AM (EST)


This feature is part of Salon's Young Americans initiative, showcasing emerging journalists reporting from America's red states. Read more Young Americans stories.

ya-embed-logoReliably conservative Tennessee has managed to show a decline in hate crimes over the past few years, but the statistics may not tell the whole story.

On May 4, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) released a report stating hate crimes in Tennessee went down from 2015 to 2016. The number of racially-motivated hate crimes had increased from 95 in 2014 to 127 in 2015, but went back down to 112  in 2016. Racially-motivated offenses made up more of the state's total reported hate crimes in 2016, about 40 percent. In comparison, in 2014 they comprised about 25 percent, and in 2015, about 21 percent.

The number of ethnicity or national origin bias hate crimes dropped from 68 to nine and about 11 to about 3 percent of the state's total from 2015 to 2016. Of the 68 crimes committed in 2016, 51 of them were against people other than Latin, Hispanic or Arab ethnicities.

But Maria Tcherni-Buzzeo, a criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven, cautioned too big a deal could potentially be made from fluctuations from one year to the next because that alone is not enough data.

“If we have it over several years, then we can try to interpret it as a trend or as meaningful changes, but if we only have two years of data, it’s just not clear,” Tcherni-Buzzeo said.

Tcherni-Buzzeo also noted that statistics only tell the story of information that's provided. This annual study gets information from data submitted to the Tennessee Incident Based Reporting System, or TIBRS, which relies on individual Tennessee law enforcement agencies to report data for analysis.

“These are reported crimes, and it could be there were many more,” Tcherni-Buzzeo said. “But they just weren’t reported exactly because of this environment of animosity, and [victims] can feel like they just don’t want to involve the criminal justice or they don’t want to go any further with it.”

Victims of hate crimes who have an intersectional identity — who fall into more than one identity category — also may find it difficult to report the exact reason they were a victim.

And reporting crimes and getting justice for them remain separate challenges. It is often hard to prosecute criminals for a hate crime because it's often hard to conclusively prove intention, said Kevin Borgeson, a criminal justice professor at Salem State University who teaches a class about hate crime.

In their report, the TBI states because motivation for a crime is subjective, “It is difficult to know with certainty whether a crime was the result of the offender’s bias.” Before law enforcement reports incidents as hate crimes, “Objective facts must be present to lead a prudent person to conclude that the offender’s actions were motivated by bias.”

As far as Columbia University Law Professor Jeffrey Fagan can tell from looking at data provided by groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and B’nai Brith, the increase in hate crimes and groups did not kick in until closer to the end of last year’s election cycle.

“Based on newspaper stories, which reflect actual incidents, the uptick in 2016 went into high gear after November,” Fagan said. “Quite honestly, the downturn is hard to believe simply because there are extremely few instances of increases or declines of that magnitude in any crime category in counties, cities or states.”

By Nick Lingerfelt

Nick Lingerfelt attends the University of Memphis in the great city of Memphis, Tennessee. He is participating as a Young American at Salon to let some residents of coastal and "blue" states know their values are not as different from people in the heartland of America's as they might think. Also, Tennessee often gets written off as a solid "red" state, but the fastest-growing cities in this state, Memphis and Nashville, are liberal bastions with surprisingly diverse populations.

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