BOGALUSA, La. (AP) — The knock on the door, strong and quick, jolted Barbara Hicks Collins awake. It was the middle of the night. Someone must be in trouble, she thought. She flung open her front door to the shocking sight of her car engulfed in flames.
Investigators later determined someone had deliberately set fire to her Mercedes and also tried to burn down the one-story brick house she shared with her mother in this eastern Louisiana town, once known as a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity. Hicks Collins, a black woman, had no doubt the fire — set on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2012 — was racially motivated. Her father had been a prominent civil rights leader who filed lawsuits that desegregated local schools and forced police to protect protesters, and her family remained active in the community.
Despite the circumstances, the case was never counted in the nation’s annual tally of hate crimes. In fact, neither the police department nor the local sheriff has filed a hate crime report with the FBI since at least 2009.
And that’s not unusual, an investigation by The Associated Press found. The AP identified almost 2,800 city police and county sheriff’s departments across the country that have not submitted a single hate crime report for the FBI’s annual crime tally during the past six years — about 17 percent of all city and county law enforcement agencies nationwide.
Advocates worry that the lack of a comprehensive, annual accounting disguises the extent of bias crimes at a time of heightened racial, religious and ethnic tensions. The nation was stunned last June when nine black parishioners were shot dead at a Charleston, South Carolina, church, in an attack labeled a hate crime, and community groups have reported a notable increase in violence against Muslims and mosques in the wake of last year’s terror acts in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Gay and transgender people also are regular targets.
A better accounting of hate crimes, the FBI and other proponents say, would not only increase awareness but also boost efforts to combat such crimes with more resources for law enforcement training and community outreach.
“We need the reporting to happen,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta‘s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached. “Without a diagnosis, we don’t know how serious the illness is. And without a diagnosis, there is no prescription. And without a prescription, there is no healing.”
The FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Filing reports for the federal count is voluntary and guidelines call for reports to be submitted even if they list zero hate crimes, a signal to both the FBI and the community that local departments are taking such crimes seriously.