After a homemade bomb ripped through a window of Bloomington’s Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center last summer, the FBI quickly flew evidence to its Virginia lab in a desperate search for answers while Gov. Mark Dayton declared the blast an act of terrorism.
“This was a very well-planned hate crime,” said Mohamed Omar, the Islamic center’s executive director. “It could not have been a coincidence or something where someone didn’t know what they were doing.”
But the explosion is nowhere to be found in the 2017 hate crime reports compiled by Minnesota law enforcement agencies that will be forwarded to the FBI later this year. The absence of the Bloomington bombing and several other high profile incidents in data reviewed by the Star Tribune suggests ongoing inconsistency and confusion among agencies about what constitutes a hate or bias crime.
Victims, advocates and federal authorities alike say these varying standards, along with a general unwillingness among many victims to call police, means residents often have an inaccurate understanding of the prevalence of hate in their communities.
“It would be helpful to have more accurate statistics on hate crimes in order for the law enforcement community to use those statistics to advocate for increased resources to prevent and prosecute hate crimes because prosecuting hate crime is a major priority for us,” U.S. Attorney Greg Brooker said this week.
Nearly two-thirds of Minnesota’s law enforcement agencies reported zero hate crimes in their jurisdictions in 2016, according to the FBI’s most recent report released last November. And the results are nearly identical in data for 2017 being prepared by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which sends those figures to the FBI.
Mirroring a nationwide trend, police agencies for some of Minnesota’s largest cities — like Rochester and Duluth — reported zero hate crimes in 2016. Others, like Bloomington’s police department, say they’ve had just two total bias incidents in the past decade.
“I find it difficult to believe that in any community there is zero hate,” said Cynthia Deitle, program director for the Matthew Shepard Foundation and a former chief of the FBI’s civil rights unit. “We just don’t know where the breakdown is.”
The FBI relies on voluntary reports from law enforcement agencies for its tally. Minnesota requires its agencies to report to the BCA any incidents believed to be motivated by the victim’s “race, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability or characteristics identified as sexual orientation.”
According to the law, reports must be made either when an officer believes the case to be bias-motivated or if the victim alleges that they were targeted for that reason. Nearly a third of the 360 incidents reported from 2015 to 2017 and reviewed by the Star Tribune were based solely on a victim’s belief, while another 176 were a combination of the victim and officer’s belief.
Some departments still wait until they have a suspect identified — and even then may wait until a prosecutor calls the crime bias-motivated — before determining whether to report an incident to the BCA as bias-motivated.
“At the end of the day, what we all want is for those numbers to be accurate,” Bloomington Deputy Police Chief Mike Hartley said.
Hartley said Bloomington does not keep track of cases that prosecutors later determine to have a bias element. And he said it won’t count the Dar Al-Farooq explosion because the FBI has the case.
Most agencies across the country that voluntarily report data to the FBI routinely say that they have no hate crimes to report — and 187 agencies covering populations of at least 100,000 people either didn’t participate in reporting or reported that zero hate crimes occurred in their jurisdictions in 2016.
Rochester’s police department — which covers a population of more than 113,000 people — twice reported zero hate crimes since 2014. But the BCA’s early data for 2017 shows a spike of 11 bias crimes reported there last year, more than half of which were anti-black cases.
Capt. John Sherwin said the rise in reports is not attributable to a change in department policy, which he said adopts a loose approach to reporting cases to the BCA as hate investigations. Last September, a small Black Lives Matter sign was set ablaze in the front lawn of what turned out to be a white family’s home. Lacking a suspect’s description, Sherwin said the department still reported the case to the BCA as an anti-black crime.
In Maple Grove, home to nearly 70,000 residents, no hate crimes have been reported since 2015. But after being contacted by the Star Tribune, Capt. Adam Lindquist said the department should have included a Maple Grove High School racist graffiti incident that happened the day after the 2016 election. The episode prompted protests at the school and a police investigation. But Lindquist said that because the case was still considered pending at the time, a crime analyst was not comfortable reporting it to the BCA.
Lindquist said Maple Grove police supervisors have since agreed to adjust its workflow in responding to, and counting, bias-motivated incidents.
The FBI’s annual reports can still reveal troubling trends: Last year, the FBI reported, crimes targeting Muslims continued to rise, a year after hitting a high not recorded since nationwide backlash after the 9/11 attacks. In Minnesota last year, according to the preliminary BCA data, police charted a stunning rise in graffiti incidents involving swastikas.
But the roughly 6,100 hate crimes reported to the FBI in 2016 are just a fraction of the nearly 250,000 estimated each year by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which also found that more than half of all hate crime victims aren’t calling police.
Around the Twin Cities, local officials and nonprofits are stepping forward to provide an additional outlet for reporting and resources for hate crime victims. Last year, the city of Minneapolis launched a hot line for reporting hate crimes that sparked concerns that it would stifle protected speech. Velma Korbel, director of the city’s Department of Civil Rights, said the hot line has responded to more than 60 cases — about half of which were referred to police, the FBI or civil rights department investigators.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) fields reports from residents and compiles media reports that it sends to the nonprofit Anti-Defamation League for annual studies. Anthony Sussman, JCRC’s director of communications and community security, said the organization has tallied 20 anti-Semitic incidents around Minnesota both last year and in 2016 — up from 12 in 2015 and 9 in 2014.
“It is of critical importance that hate incidents and crimes are reported,” Sussman said. “In order to accomplish this, it takes a communitywide approach including civic leaders, nonprofit organizations such as the JCRC, and law enforcement agencies working with the FBI and Department of Justice to ensure that there is not a gap in reporting incidents.”
Asma Jama, a Somali immigrant who in 2015 had a beer mug smashed across her face at a Coon Rapids Applebee’s for speaking Swahili, is now starting a nonprofit advocacy group for hate crime victims to be called “Petals of Justice.” Jama plans to draw upon her experience as both a hate crime survivor and legal advocate for domestic abuse victims. By making herself available, Jama said, she hopes to carve out a new space for those who may otherwise let their victimization go unreported.
“You lose a lot when you don’t talk about it,” Jama said. “It’s something that’s going to eat at you for the rest of your life.”
Omar, the Dar Al-Farooq director, has had to call Bloomington police before the August 2017 bombing and said he has been heartened by the department’s swift response. One year before the explosion, police were called after a man said he planned to “blow the mosque up and completely destroy the whole thing.”
There is no record of the incident in hate crime statistics for Minnesota.
Omar has since turned his attention to planning an open house this week, where the center will showcase repairs made by a volunteer council of carpenters.
But the uncertainty as to what happened last year is never far from his mind,
“The threat is unknown,” Omar said. “We do not know what is going to come. We don’t know who did it.”
Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report. Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755 Twitter: @smontemayor
This story was reported using data from ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project — a nonprofit, nonpartisan effort by the nation’s news organizations to create a national database of hate crimes and bias incidents. If you’ve been a victim or a witness, use this form to tell us your story. View the project at https://projects.propublica.org/graphics/hatecrimes