• Center for Problem oriented policing

The Problem of Hate Crimes

This guide begins by describing the problem of hate crimes and reviewing factors that increase its risks. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local hate crimes problem. It reviews responses to the problem and what is known about these from evaluative research and police practice. Specifically, it describes what you can do to reduce underlying tension in the community that contributes to hate crimes. This guide also outlines what the police can do to address any special fear and trauma experienced by the individual victim and the racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual orientation community to which the victim belongs. Finally, it reviews the police role in monitoring hate groups that have members and conduct activities in your community.

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

Hate crime is a broad area because there is an array of substantive crimes that sometimes are committed because of a hate motivation. Hate crime is but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to these types of crimes. This guide is limited to addressing community tension that may generate hate crimes and the particular harms created by hate crimes to the individual victim and the community to which they belong. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which will require separate analysis, include many common crime types that are often motivated by hate, such as the following:

  • Aggressive driving
  • Assaults in and around bars
  • Bullying in schools
  • Cemetery vandalism
  • Drive-by shootings
  • Graffiti
  • Homeless encampments
  • School vandalism
  • Stalking
  • Street robbery

Many of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org.

Some hate-related activity, such as hate-group meetings, rallies, and leafleting, encompasses constitutionally protected legal behaviors. The hate-crime problem at times is thus also related to policing political protests (such as a legal hate-group rally or a community protest against hate crimes). 

General Description of the Problem

Hate crimes—also called bias crimes—are offenses where "the offender intentionally selects the victim because of the victim's actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation."1 For instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Hate Crime Statistics Program "collects data regarding criminal offenses that are motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity/national origin, or disability and are committed against persons, property, or society."2 The act is considered a hate crime, in other words, if the offender is motivated in whole or in part by bias or hate and selects the victim because the victim had one of the above listed characteristics.3 If the perpetrator commits the crime for a variety of motives, such as both greed and hate of the victim's characteristic, the offense is still considered a hate crime.4

A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder or vandalism with the added element of bias.5 Most states have passed hate-crime statutes that allow the penalty for certain substantive crimes to be increased if it is proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the offender was motivated by hate. These statutes vary, however, in which groups are protected by the statute, whether they mandate the compiling of hate-crime statistics, and in other aspects.6 The first federal statute, the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, focusing on gathering information about the number and types of hate crimes, was passed in 1990. This statute directed the U.S. Attorney General to gather data every year about hate crimes through the UCR.7 The collection of hate-crime data was continued and extended beyond race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation to include bias against disability in the passage of the 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act. The UCR's data collection of hate crimes was made permanent with the passage of the Church Arson Prevention Act passed in 1996. Rape is usually not considered a hate crime, however, although certain feminist organizations would argue that it should be. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), run by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, began including questions about hate crimes in 2000. National-level statistics about the prevalence, nature, and scope of hate crimes are thus available from both the UCR and NCVS.

According to the NCVS, in recent years the annual number of hate crimes has declined.8 Nonetheless, between 2003 and 2009 an annual average of 195,000 hate-crime victimizations occurred against victims aged 12 years and older in the United States. Almost 90 percent of these hate crimes were thought to be motivated by racial or ethnic bias or both. Victims in 15 percent of hate crimes thought it was motivated by sexual orientation, in 12 percent of crimes they thought it was motivated by religious bias, and in 10 percent of crimes they suspected the motivation was against their disability.* The most common hate crime was simple assault (64 percent), followed by aggravated assault (16 percent).

* These percentages come to more than 100% because victims may have reported more than one type of bias motivating the hate crime. 

Hate crimes are more likely to be violent compared to non-hate crimes. Over 85 percent of hate crimes involved violence and almost one-quarter were serious violent crimes (i.e., rape/sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault). Only 13 percent of hate-crime victimizations involved property crimes. These figures are markedly different from non-hate crimes. According to the NCVS, only 23 percent of non-hate crimes are violent crimes, with close to 8 percent classified as serious violent crimes, and 76 percent are property crimes. These figures raise the possibility that victims may be underreporting property-related hate crimes. It is possible victims do not recognize that crimes committed against their property were also a hate crime. For example, if perpetrators vandalize a victim's property out of bias but do not leave any hate symbols at the crime scene, the victim may never realize it was a hate crime.

It is important to disaggregate hate crimes since the types of crimes committed against various minority groups differ, and how each group responds to their victimization varies. For example, anti-religious hate crimes are more likely than other types to involve property damage and vandalism. Different types of hate crimes will also vary across different locations and in their trends over time.

Significantly, 54 percent of hate-crime victims did not report their victimizations to the police.9 Many factors affect whether a victim reports a hate crime, including whether the victim was aware a crime occurred, whether the victim thought the crime was serious enough to report, whether the victim thought the police could respond to the crime, and the victim's relationship to the perpetrator.10 Victims of disability hate were the least likely to report their victimization to the police.

The NCVS estimates that an average of 169,000 violent hate-crime victimizations occur each year. The UCR's hate-crime numbers are lower and indicate that an average of 2,900 hate-crime victims are known to the police each year. If one takes into account NCVS's 54 percent of non-reporting victims and adds in that "12 percent of (NCVS) victims stated a complaint was signed, and [only] 7 percent received confirmation from police investigators that the crime was a hate crime…[then] the UCR estimate is no longer statistically different from the NCVS estimate due the relatively large standard error associated with the NCVS estimate."11

Similar to the NCVS, the UCR's numbers show a decline in the number of hate-crime victimizations known to the police from 2003 to 2009. While the FBI's National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) also seeks to capture information about hate-crime incidents, fewer police agencies participate in it compared to the UCR. The UCR's numbers are more frequently cited than NIBRS, and this is why only the UCR's findings are referenced here. Finally, the well-known measurement weaknesses of both the UCR and the NCVS, which are heightened in the hate-crime context, must be kept in mind. Again, hate-crime victims may not report their victimization because of shame, fear, distrust of police, and other reasons. In addition, not all police departments participate in the UCR, though around 95 percent of the population does reside in participating jurisdictions. Departments that do participate may not collect hate-crime statistics or may choose not to report them to the UCR. Importantly, police departments may not have received the same amount and types of training on the identification of hate crimes, which makes it difficult to make cross jurisdictional comparisons. (Some jurisdictions may under-report and other jurisdictions may over-report.) The UCR also only collects data on a limited number of motivational types of crime, and a limited number of hate-crime offenses. Similarly, victims in the NCVS sample may decide not to report their hate-crime victimizations to the NCVS for many of the same reasons. 

Hate Groups

Although hate crimes are usually not committed by hate groups, white supremacists, or other types of political extremists, some are. Some jurisdictions with a larger number of hate-group activities also report high numbers of hate crimes. Supporters of organized hate groups have committed high-profile fatal attacks such as the August 2012 shooting at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin that killed six, and the 1999 Fourth of July shooting spree in Indiana that killed two and wounded nine. The FBI and other data-collection efforts focused on terrorist acts, however, often exclude hate-motivated acts from their universe. These collection efforts argue that terrorist acts are committed to further a political or social goal, while most hate crimes lack these motives. Some disagree because a few hate crimes are ideologically motivated offenses committed by white supremacists or other extremists while other hate crimes are committed to further a social goal (for example "defending one's neighborhood").12 The UCR and the NCVS do not note if the perpetrators of hate crimes are extremist or if the act was committed, or inspired, by a hate group.13 Since it is important, as demonstrated below, to differentiate between hate crimes committed by ideological white supremacists, other political extremists and non-extremist perpetrators, police and scholars must turn to other sources.

The U.S. Extremist Crime Database (ECDB) tracks ideologically motivated homicides committed by far-rightists and other extremists. It is possible to extract anti-minority homicides from the ECDB (i.e., hate-crime homicides committed by white supremacists and other extremists) and compare them to non-hate group/extremist hate homicides from the UCR.14 Finally, private watch-groups like the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Violence Project (formerly the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF)), and others track specific types of hate crimes, determined by their interest (i.e., anti-gay, anti-disability, anti-Jewish, anti-Black, etc.). Some of these sources also document if the hate crime was committed by supporters of a hate group or by white supremacists.

Interestingly, although watch-groups usually identify more hate crimes than the police, the two sources sometimes agree where such crimes occur. Thus, either source could be used to study differences in the distribution of hate crimes across locations and would provide the same results if used to identify where hate crimes are most and least likely to occur.15 

Harms Caused by Hate Crimes

Hate crimes are thought to be different from other crimes and worthy of extra attention for a series of reasons. Violent hate crimes have been found to be more brutal than similar non-hate crimes.16 There is a tendency, in other words, for hate-crime offenders to use extreme violence and go beyond what is required to simply subdue the victim. Similarly, almost 25 percent of hate crimes are serious violent crimes (i.e., rape/sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault), compared to only 8 percent of non-hate crimes that are classified in this way.17

Hate crimes often cause the direct victim of the attack to suffer from psychological stress such as depression, anxiety and feelings of heightened vulnerability, lack of concentration, and unintentional rethinking about an incident. Comparisons between hate-crime and non-hate crime victims find that hate-crime victims are significantly more likely to be fearful, expect to be targeted for additional victimizations, and are less comfortable visiting the area where they were victimized. Hate-crime victims are also more likely to have employment problems, suffer from health issues, and have difficulties overcoming the victimization.18 Some hate-crime victims are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder compared to other types of victims. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted the claim that hate crimes cause 'distinct emotional harm' to victims. Hate crimes may increase fear in the victim's family and their community and also lead them to experience the negative consequences outlined above. It is apparent that hate crimes can impact the spatial mobility of members of the targeted communities. That is, individuals restrict their everyday movements to only those environments where they feel safe. These reactions could undermine community cohesiveness and strain ties between the police and the community. Further, hate crimes could lead to retaliatory strikes from the victim's community against members of the attackers' community and thereby create a feud-like situation. Such an occurrence would further undermine public safety and community stability.19

Police actions that seem to minimize the hate crime and/or dismiss the victim's concerns could have negative consequences. Some victims may feel re-victimized by the official response to their initial victimization. Further, the victim's wider community may perceive these actions as reflecting the police department's policies, and conclude that the police ignore their community's concerns. Thus, police-community relations could be further undermined.20 

Factors Contributing to Hate Crimes, Community Tension, and Fear

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses. Factors that increase tension in the community that contribute to hate crimes are reviewed. Next, there is a discussion of factors that contribute to the emergence of hate groups and their increased activities in the area. A review of what is known about hate-crime offenders and discussion of the characteristics and special needs of hate-crime victims rounds out this section.

Demographic change, social disorganization, and legal hate-group activity have been found to be associated with greater levels of hate crimes. Social disorganization is the "inability of a community…to realize the common values of its residents and maintain effective social controls."21 It is important to be aware of the sometimes subtly different types of hate crimes. Violent hate crimes against racial minorities are more common in neighborhoods that are undergoing demographic change. These areas have long been inhabited by majority members but are experiencing an immigration of racial minority-group members. Majority members may feel threatened personally and conclude that their way of life is being undermined by the minority influx. Some commit hate crimes to defend the neighborhood. The larger community and its political elites at times endorse a cultural framework that understands and may even support the commission of hate crimes.22 Violent hate crimes, like "regular" crimes, also occur in socially disorganized areas. Even in neighborhoods that are not socially disorganized, increasing the numbers of minority members in majority areas is still associated with more hate offenses.23 Importantly though, there is not much evidence to support the idea that hate crimes are caused by or increase due to poor economic conditions.24

There are some important differences between anti-black and anti-white hate crimes.25 Anti-black hate crime usually occurs in relatively organized communities with high levels of informal social control. In contrast, anti-white hate crimes are more likely to occur in disorganized locations where residential turnover is more common. Meanwhile, anti-gay hate crimes are more likely to occur in areas where gays are more numerous.26 Again, context is important. It has been argued that local hate crimes against Jews are linked to a rise in tension or a specific event in the Israel-Palestine conflict or other tensions occurring in the Middle East.27 Similarly, some find a correlation between the demonization of Muslims in the media and the victimization of local Muslims by hate crimes.28

Hate crimes are also more common in areas that have recently experienced hate-group activity. For example, more hate crimes occurred in North Carolina counties that had recently had a cross burning.29 It is possible these cross-burnings drew attention to the goals of the movement and encouraged individuals to act. The climate in these areas may also be more accepting of hate crimes. Hate groups may create an environment, in other words, that justifies the commission of hate crimes.

Similarly, hate groups may focus on areas that are undergoing demographic change to take advantage of the increased tension and use it as an opportunity to mobilize. These groups may recruit members, while also encouraging individuals to commit hate crimes in the area.30 Some racist Skinhead and other types of hate groups seek to recruit and indoctrinate disaffected or alienated white youth who feel excluded from their peers.31

College towns and neighborhoods could also pose a special risk for hate crimes. In some primarily white American cities and towns the only racial and ethnic minority members residing in these cities may be minority students that came to the city to attend college. These minority-group members thus usually constitute only a small part of the overall community population. Moreover, where this is true, it often means that these minority students lack the normal family/adult support from members of their race or ethnicity. Even if these students are welcomed within the college community, they might not be in the outside community.

Older and larger hate groups are more likely to be violent. Similarly, groups led by charismatic leaders, and groups that advocate for leaderless resistance tactics are also more likely to be violent. Interestingly, groups that publish ideological literature are less likely to be violent.32


Most hate-crime offenders are male and white. Approximately 60 percent of violent hate crimes are committed by white males. Hate-crime offenders are usually juveniles or young people. In fact, nearly half of all hate-crime offenders are under the age of 20, although hate-crime offenders who commit violence tend to be older than those committing property crimes.

There are several hate-crime offender typologies.33 Blending several typologies yields five major categories: thrill-seeking, reactive/defensive, retaliatory, mission, and bias peripheral/mixed.

Thrill-seeking is the most common offender motivation. Thrill-seeking refers to hate crimes that are committed for fun: in many cases, any vulnerable minority might be targeted. Scholars have documented thrill-seeking offenders committing attacks against racial (e.g., African Americans, Asian Americans, white Americans), religious (e.g., Amish, Jewish), ethnic (e.g., Latino), and other (e.g., gay) groups. These offenses are often committed by groups of juveniles, with no criminal records, who use non-gun weapons. Sometimes alcohol and substance abuse is involved, and these crimes tend to occur in public locations like parks and streets.
Reactive/defensive refers to hate offenses that are committed to defend inferred incursions against one's area or way of life. These crimes are consistent with the defended neighborhood thesis discussed above that explains why hate crimes are more common in areas that are experiencing increases in minority populations. These crimes also usually occur in groups. The offenders specifically seek out victims from the minority group they view as encroaching upon their neighborhood. Often the perpetrators are emboldened to act because they believe the larger community shares their dislike of the minority group and would support or accept their crimes against them. Again, hate groups at times target these areas to take advantage of the situation by recruiting disaffected white males in the area and encouraging the commission of hate crimes.34
Retaliatory offenses occur when the offenders perceive that they or their group were previously the victims of a hate crime. These offenders subsequently commit a hate crime as revenge against members of the group seen as perpetrating the initial hate crime. This category illustrates the dangers hate crimes could play in creating tensions that undermine communities because retaliatory crimes negatively affect public safety and community cohesion.
Mission offenses encompass perpetrators subscribing to a belief system that views members of the minority group they target as evil. These offenders usually act alone, and unlike thrill-seekers, appear to deliberately choose their victims. Mission perpetrators are more likely than the other categories to be members of specific hate groups or supporters of the movement's ideology. Mission offenders are also more likely to commit deadly attacks, to be suffering from a mental illness, and to commit suicide or be killed during or after their attack.
Bias Peripheral/Mixed
Bias peripheral/mixed hate crimes are those committed for mixed reasons, with hate appearing to be peripheral. In other words, these are events where two parties argued (e.g., about a parking spot or property rights) and in the course of that dispute one party attacks the other while referencing their race, religion, or other status. Like mission offenders, these perpetrators are more likely to act alone. These types of crimes are particularly difficult for the police to classify. Police may also struggle with how to most effectively respond to them.35

A few scholars have interviewed hate-crime offenders, focusing on those associated with racist hate groups. These studies have found that many offenders feared interracial marriage and increased minority immigration.36 As noted, anti-religious hate crimes are more likely to involve property crimes while anti-race hate crimes are more likely to involve personal contact crimes. Although most hate-crime offenders are young and have no criminal record, it has been found that the criminal histories of hate-crime offenders differed based upon the groups they targeted. Offenders attacking racial minorities were found to have more extensive and violent criminal histories, while perpetrators targeting religious groups had fewer prior offenses and less serious criminal histories. Offenders striking against gays had prior histories of violence, but these were not hate-crime related. These crimes often involve multiple offenders. The offenders are more likely to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol and more likely to seriously injure the victim when compared to offenders who commit other types of assaults.37


According to the NCVS, race (58 percent) is the most likely motivation of hate crime, with African Americans the most targeted. The next most frequent motivation is ethnicity (30 percent). Other motivations include sexual orientation (15 percent), religion (12 percent), and disability (10 percent). Interestingly, crimes motivated by religious bias are more likely to be property rather than personal crimes. 38 Similarly, the UCR's hate-crime data indicates that more than half of victims known to police thought it was motivated by race.

Compared to non-hate crimes, hate offenses are more likely to occur near the victim's home.Some have also noted the importance of opportunities. Perpetrators have been found to select victims that stood out (due to visual identifiers such as unique dress or clearly identified institutions that are associated with Orthodox Islam, Orthodox Judaism, or the Amish religion), and were thought to be more vulnerable because they would not fight back or report the crime.39 Compared to regular crimes, hate offenses are more likely to involve strangers (as opposed to a family member or acquaintance), multiple offenders and victims, and occur in public places.

Finally, police departments vary in whether they offer training in recognizing and responding to hate crimes. Departments that do offer training may differ in the type of training provided, and if hate crime policing is prioritized. Police departments and officers differ in their ability to recognize a hate crime. Agencies also vary in how much importance they attach to correctly recording hate crimes, and how they treat offenders and victims of hate crimes. This in turn influences whether hate-crime victims will report the offense to the police.


Specific local, national, or international events may result in a temporary spike in the number of hate crimes in your jurisdiction. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the spike in anti-Muslim attacks that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks. It is important to be aware of such events, especially those that are covered extensively in the media. Similarly, "Mission" hate-crime offenders sometimes choose to commit their attacks on certain "special dates" for the movement, such as Hitler's birthday. You should be aware of these dates' significance and heighten scrutiny at these times.

previous page next page