A hate crime report compiled by the Florida Attorney General’s office shows a 22 percent statewide increase in hate crimes in one year. But hate crime experts say such reports are severely flawed because most offenses go unreported or unprosecuted.
In the summer of 2012, a white Port St. Joe man shot one of his black neighbors in the head. The Gulf County Sherriff’s report says Walton Butler left the man bleeding while he finished his dinner. When Butler was arrested, he told police he didn’t see what the big deal was because he “only shot a [racial slur].”
The recent report shows the incident was one of 170 hate crimes Florida law enforcement agencies reported that year. That’s an increase from 139 the year before. And keeping with the trend, more than half were motivated by race.
Southern Poverty Law Center Senior Fellow Mark Potok says, “Hate crimes tend to proliferate in areas where communities are changing ethnically, racially and so on, and typically when those communities are reaching a tipping point.”
Potok’s organization advocates against discrimination with education campaigns and law suits. He says all the best research suggests Florida’s actual yearly hate crime number is somewhere north of 5,000.
“When the numbers go from—up by 20-some percent to 170, I think we can say pretty definitively that those numbers, without any doubt at all, understate the real level of hate crime that’s occurring out there,” he says.
Florida law says hate crimes involve someone harming another person or his property because of factors including race, sexual orientation or disability. Potok says, like sexual assaults, official hate crime stats are grossly deflated because more than half of victims never report them. And then, he says, there’s uneven enforcement.
“A reason that many police departments don’t pursue hate crime allegations very strongly is it’s much easier to make a case for simple assault or aggravated battery or even murder without trying to go into prove what the motive was,” he says.
In 2012, fewer than half of Florida’s 67 counties reported any hate crimes at all. Of the 30 reporting counties, most had incidents numbering in the single digits. Orange County stood out with 32 hate crimes. No. 2 reporter Brevard County had 15. But Melbourne Police Sgt. Sheridan Shelley agrees with Potok that his county’s high number shouldn’t be taken to definitively label Brevard a hotbed of hate.
“It may be because our clerks are trained and very observant when it comes to recognizing hate crimes,” he explains.
Shelley says the records department is often the front line in identifying hate crimes after an officer files an incident report. He gives a hypothetical in which a boyfriend beats up another man he finds out has been fooling around with his girlfriend.
“But during the course of that, the boyfriend uses hate speech directed at that person, their race or religion. Now again, the officer is really looking at the basic elements: You have a battery. But with that documented and what was said, our records people will recognize that,” he says.
At the Florida State University Student Union this week, FSU sophomore Ebonique Brooks was manning the info table for the Black Student Union.
“The Black Student Union definitely addresses hate crimes, especially on campus because recently there was a racial slur,” she says.
Her group recently held a public forum to discuss racism after a white student recorded a video in the union and posted it on social media, complete with a caption using a derogatory term for black people.
“So it was implying that it was about African Americans, but it was pretty obvious,” Brooks says.
That incident wasn’t deemed criminal, but Florida’s university police departments reported 11 hate crimes in 2012.
Potok says no one knows for sure how pervasive the problem is and what resources should be dedicated to stopping it. Case in point: The FBI’s 2012 hate crime report for Florida lists 26 fewer crimes than Florida’s own report does.