Arizona hate crimes hit their highest level since 9/11, and it’s likely an undercount

A candelight vigil was held at the Arizona Capitol in March for the eight victims of an anti-Asian hate crime in Atlanta. Hate crimes climbed in Arizona last year and race continued to be the largest factor, accounting for 70% of the hate crimes reported in the state in 2020. (File photo by Rachel Stapholz/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Hate crimes in Arizona in 2020 were the highest reported since 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, according to new FBI statistics, but advocates and experts say many more hate crimes mostly likely were unreported.

According to the FBI’s voluntary Uniform Crime Report, Arizona recorded 282 hate crimes in 2020, continuing an upward trend from 2019 and registering one of the highest in the past 30 years.

Nationally, hate crimes increased to 8,263 in 2020 from 7,287 in 2019, according to the data.

The rise in 2020 occurred alongside spikes in political and racial divisions in the United States, with deep conflicts over such issues as immigration, police mistreatment of people of color and COVID-19 pandemic.

“When we demonize groups, unfortunately, what happens then is that some people take that as permission to go out and commit a hate crime,” said Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute for Race and Justice at Northeastern University.

In another alarming trend, fewer police departments sent data on hate crimes to the FBI reporting system, or reported the number of crimes as zero, leading many to believe that the 2020 numbers are not a complete picture of the problem.

Of the 125 law enforcement agencies in Arizona, only 81 sent in data to the FBI’s reporting system. The 2019 report used data from 92 agencies.

In 2020, 15,138 of 18,625 law enforcement agencies across the country submitted data, compared with 15,772 of 18,674 in 2019.

“The vast majority of agencies around the country … affirmatively report to the FBI that they had zero hate crimes in 2020,” said Michael Lieberman, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Only 2,389 of the 15,138 reported one or more hate crimes, so obviously the numbers are incomplete.”

The FBI defines a hate crime as “a committed criminal offense which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias(es) against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”

In Arizona, crimes motivated by race, ethnicity and ancestry made up the majority of hate crimes in 2020, accounting for 198 of the 282 incidents reported. Of the racially motivated hate crimes, Black Americans reported the most, accounting for 114 of the total 198.

Crimes against Hispanics or Latinos was the second highest reported, with 31, followed by whites, with 29.

Carlos Galindo-Elvira, director of community engagement and partnerships for Chicanos Por La Causa, called the data alarming and said “one hate crime is too many.”

“Hate crimes are message crimes,” he said. “While there may be a victim or victims of the crime, it is a clear message to the rest of the community: ‘You are not wanted here,’ ‘We do not like your kind.’ That has to be terrifying for the individual, but also for the community at large.”

Religious bias was the second most-frequent reason for hate crimes in Arizona, with 36 (13%).

Marc Krell, associate regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Arizona, said rhetoric from state and local political levels has heightened hate. In September, state Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, likened COVID-19 vaccines to the Holocaust and tweeted an image of needles in the shape of a swastika.

“This is an example of people having a platform,” Krell said. “When we see this kind of messaging coming out of elected officials, it is very troubling because it sets an example for people that this is OK.”

Sexual orientation remained as the third most-frequent reason for hate crimes, with 33 in Arizona in 2020. Fourth was crimes against gay men, with 25.

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Nationally, hate crimes against Asians increased to 279 in 2020, up from 161 in 2019. This comes in the wake of anti-Asian rhetoric surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, including former President Donald Trump referring to the virus as “kung flu” and “Wuhan virus.” In Arizona, 4 hate crimes targeting Asians were reported in 2020, up from 1 in 2019.

But these statistics show an incomplete picture of how many hate crimes occur in the country, advocates and experts say.

“The extent of the undercount is hard to tell,” McDevitt said.

In some cases, victims do not report. Lieberman said there are many reasons why people do not report, including fear of police, language barriers, documentation status and LGBTQ+ individuals who have not “come out” to family or colleagues.

Galindo-Elvira said some victims may not recognize that the crime committed against them was a hate crime.

And in other cases, McDevitt said, hateful behavior occurs but isn’t considered a crime by law enforcement.

“Sometimes we think of things that are hurtful, and we’d like to report those but they don’t qualify as crimes,” he said.

Additionally, the FBI’s data collection system is voluntary, and an agency is counted even if it reports zero hate crimes.

Lieberman said about 70 cities with populations more than 100,000 – including Tucson – either did not report any hate crimes or affirmatively reported zero. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department reported 26 hate crimes last year.

Tucson police officials did not respond when asked about hate crimes in 2020. This is the first time since 2007 that the city did not report any hate crimes; in 2019, Tucson police reported 16.

Although the rise in hate crimes is alarming, experts say such crimes undoubtedly are underreported. (File photo by Rachel Stapholz/Cronkite News)

In 2020, Phoenix had the most reported hate crimes in the state, with 187, up from 151 in 2019.
Glendale, Chandler and Gilbert reported several incidents each.

“The safety of our community is the top priority for the Phoenix Police Department, and we have a team of detectives dedicated to investigating crimes motivated by bias,” police spokesperson Ann Justus said in an email. “We are aware of the UCR data, and we constantly evaluate crime trends in an effort to decrease the victimization of our community members.”

To decrease hate crimes nationally and in Arizona, advocates and experts said, more needs to be done to educate the public and provide support to those who have been victimized.

“Fear motivates people who are committing hate crimes,” Galindo-Elvira said, “but fear also holds people back from reporting.”

Galindo-Elvira said Chicanos Por La Causa seeks to help victims by speaking out against hate and supporting victims in times of need.

Local leaders and government officials throughout the state should speak out against hate and insist that it is not normalized, he said, “because when you’re silent, it gives an opportunity for believed permission.”

“It’s incumbent upon all of us to shine a light against hate, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric to ensure that we have a society that embraces all and embraces diversity,” he said.

McDevitt echoed similar sentiments, adding that “diversity in our communities makes us stronger, it doesn’t make us weaker.”

“As a society, we have to understand that hate crimes can tear us apart,” he said. “If we don’t take them seriously and we don’t react to them positively, our communities are going to fall apart.”

Olivia Munson(she/her)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Olivia Munson expects to graduate in spring 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in women and gender studies. Munson, who has reported for the D.C. Bureau, Times Media Group, The State Press and The Arizona Republic, is working in the Phoenix News Bureau.