From an attack on Asian American women in Atlanta, a rabbi’s stabbing in Brighton to the fatal shooting of two Black people in Winthrop, hate crimes — or, at least, those publicly deemed as such — are making headlines this year. However, according to research at the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University, official data on hate crimes is often undercounted and inconsistent.

“When you see those hate crime statistics, you're really looking at the very, very tip of a huge iceberg," Carlos Cuevas, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice and co-director of the Violence and Justice Research Lab at Northeastern University, told Marilyn Schairer on Morning Edition Friday.

The path from a hate crime occurring to it being officially counted and prosecuted as one is a “complicated” process that can be interrupted by a myriad of factors, Cuevas said. First, an individual must report that hate crime, which he said is not as straightforward as it sounds.

“Individuals who experience [these sorts] of hate crime events are really, really reluctant to report to police,” he said. “A hate crime isn't just an offense against an individual. It's also meant to cause fear in that community. And a lot of these communities are very tight knit, they all sort of talk to each other. And so, that fearfulness keeps people from coming forward”

Cuevas referred to a research study of Latino adults in which only 8% felt comfortable reporting hate crimes to the police. He said mistrust of police in many marginalized communities is a barrier.

“The other issue is that there are some communities that are not going to be trustful of police or of the criminal justice system, and will be reluctant to come forward because they don't think it's going to do anything or they don't think it's going to help,” he said.

In addition to the individual, it’s often up to the police to identify hate crimes as they happen in the field, and Cuevas said his research has found there is sometimes a “reluctance” to classify something as a hate crime, because the legal definition of a hate crime is specific and can be hard to apply consistently in investigations.

"When you see those hate crime statistics, you're really looking at the very, very tip of a huge iceberg."
-Carlos Cuevas

Daniel Medwed, GBH News legal analyst and law professor at Northeastern University, outlined the legal definition of a hate crime for Morning Edition. The prosecutor first needs to prove defendant committed a traditional crime, like assault.

“Second, and most importantly, you have to show that the defendant acted with, quote, ‘the intent to intimidate the victim because the victim belonged to a particular protected group,'” Medwed explained. “And third, you have to show that that person was chosen because of that protected status, that it's based on race or religious affiliation, national origin, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation and so on.”

That narrow legal definition means that many hate crimes go unreported, according to Cuevas, because they don’t reach that legal bar. He said violent incidents in which someone’s race isn’t explicitly mentioned might not meet that definition. For example, Schairer noted, George Floyd’s death in May 2020 was not ruled a hate crime.

And, even less violent incidents that involve microaggressions or being called racial slurs can be damaging to a community. [They’re] just as impactful as hate crimes in terms of sort of individual mental health and such,” Cuevas said.

“I think the big-ticket items are going to be trying to improve and develop police and criminal justice community relations,” Cuevas said, when asked about ways to improve reporting statistics. “I think that's a huge piece of this.”