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Better hate crime reporting needed

The FBI’s annual report on hate crimes is a necessity, especially in troubled times like today, but officials need to improve the collection of data to provide a more accurate and useful reflection of where and how often incidents occur.

The flaws in the current reporting system are readily apparent in the 2017 report, issued earlier this month. Eugene is listed as having had 72 reported hate crimes last year — nearly half of the 146 incidents for all of Oregon. While it’s possible Eugene has a problem worse than the rest of the state, it seems unlikely the city outpaces so many other communities.

The more likely explanation for disproportionate numbers is the way that hate crimes are reported to the FBI. It’s a self-reporting system, and Eugene — with a very active partnership between law enforcement and the Office of Human Rights and Neighborhood Involvement — is well ahead of many communities in Oregon and elsewhere in documenting incidents.

Katie Babits, the office’s human rights and equity analyst, says community outreach and coordination with the police department have helped capture more data on the number of hate crimes in Eugene than in the past. In 2017, for instance, the police began to document graffiti and acts of vandalism themselves rather than rely only on reports filed by citizens.

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, part of the University of California at San Bernardino, has noted previously that cities with a higher per capita number of incidents tend to have superior reporting practices. That’s clearly at play in Oregon. Portland, with about four times the population of Eugene, had 18 reported hate crimes last year, roughly four times fewer than Eugene. Meanwhile, Eugene’s neighbors in Springfield, reported only one hate crime.

By no means do the flaws in the FBI report undermine the overall value of the information or the significance of Eugene’s hate crime problem. City officials say they recorded 87 hate and bias crimes last year, up from 44 the previous year, in part because of changes in city’s better collection of data.

Whether it’s 72 or 87, the true number is likely even higher. As Babits points out, FBI research shows only 25 to 42 percent of hate crimes are ever reported. As a nation and as a community, we must do better. Only if we know when and where incidents occur and the nature of them can we respond.

Other cities in Oregon and around the country need to take hate and bias crimes as seriously as Eugene and dedicate more resources to inviting reports and documenting crimes correctly. Lawmakers in Oregon also should make their voices heard and enlist state assistance.

Hate crimes are on the rise nationally, and gathering accurate statistics is an important part of formulating an effective response. We suffer as a nation, a state and a community when we do not track — and answer — acts of hate and bias committed against people simply because of who they are.