Hate Crime Numbers Against People With Disabilities Paint an Incomplete Picture

Published November 5, 2021

Hate crimes against people with disabilities have increased ten-fold over the years. In 1997, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported 13 hate crimes against people with disabilities. By 2020, that number jumped to 130 hate crimes. Each year, the number of hate crimes against people with disabilities steadily tracks upward, but what is driving this change? And why are the numbers still incomplete? Let’s take a deep dive into this data to better understand who is reporting hate crimes – and who isn’t.

Better reporting drives higher hate crime numbers

The first thing to consider when looking at the hate crime statistics is the rise in participation over time. Hate crime reports are voluntarily submitted to the FBI through various law enforcement agencies. The more agencies use these reporting tools, the better the FBI is able to understand the rate of hate crimes in America. Since 1997, significantly more precincts have shared hate crime data each year.

While you can’t fairly compare data from one year against another because of changes in participation, you can look at data trends over time. Even with changes in how bureaus define hate crimes and report them, there is an alarming trend in the number of hate crimes against people with disabilities committed in the country each year. This trend is even more pronounced when you look at other hate crimes and how they have remained steady over the decades.

  • 5,583 race-based hate crimes were reported in 1997 compared to 5,227 in 2020.
  • 1,388 religion-based hate crimes were reported in 1997 compared to 1,244 in 2020.
  • 1,108 sexual orientation-based hate crimes were reported in 1997 compared to 1,110 in 2020.

If hate crimes were up in the United States because of better reporting, then incidents against people because of their race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation would all likely increase as well. However, all other hate crime numbers have remained steady over the years, while crimes against people with disabilities have increased.

Many hate crimes still go unreported

Despite the increase in reported hate crimes, many incidents are still never reported to the FBI. There are two types of reporting that need to happen to get this data: the police need to submit their reports to the FBI and the hate crime victims need to report incidents to the police. In both cases, the numbers are lacking. In 2021, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League called out law enforcement agencies for neglecting to report their hate crime statistics.

“While these numbers are disturbing on their own, the fact that so many law enforcement agencies did not participate is inexcusable, and the fact that over 60 jurisdictions with populations over 100,000 affirmatively reported zero hate crimes is simply not credible," says Greenblatt.

Vermont, the state with the second-lowest population (623,000 residents) reported 60 hate crimes in 2020 across 88 law enforcement precincts. Alabama, a state with almost five million residents only reported 27 hate crimes across 409 precincts. Politics aside, it’s unlikely that a state with 12 percent of the population of another would have more than double the number of hate crimes.

It’s safe to assume that hate crimes against people with disabilities are actually higher than the numbers reported, purely because of missing data. However, many people with disabilities still feel uncomfortable or unsafe reporting hate crimes, whether they are afraid of approaching the police or fear retribution from their aggressors.

In a 2020 meeting with the Community Relations Service at the Department of Justice, advocates highlighted the stigma that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities face and the challenges that come from reporting incidents. They called on law enforcement to provide better accommodations for people with disabilities and better training to help these individuals.

Luby Ismail, a cultural competence trainer, says it’s ultimately up to people without disabilities to use their power to help those who have them. Law enforcement teams need to be allies to people with disabilities and actively work to protect them.

It takes a lot to report a hate crime

On the other side of the incomplete data, you have victims who fail to report incidents of aggression. It’s not easy to bring a hate crime to the police. That individual needs to speak with law enforcement officers, either at the station, on the scene, or in their homes. For many people, interacting with police is a terrifying experience – especially when it comes to reliving the trauma of their attack in great detail.

People who experience hate crimes also need to believe that the police will do something about the claim and actively take steps to bring the criminals to justice. Many Americans lack that confidence.

This is why the FBI encourages people who are victims of hate crimes to report the incidents, no matter how small they are. Even minor events can alert police to regional trends and make them more aware of potential hate crime activity. Furthermore, when victims start to speak out, more can feel comfortable coming forward and making their experiences heard.

The disabled community has a poor relationship with the police

There is another barrier stopping members of the disabled community from reporting hate crimes. Police are not always viewed as helpers, but rather enforcers. This poor relationship between police and people with disabilities often starts at a young age and gets worse over time.

For example, law enforcement is often called on students with disabilities when their needs aren’t being met. Educators and administrators who don’t have the training to work with students with disabilities instead call the police to take control of the situation.

One mother shared the story of her son who is neurodivergent. When he had an outburst in class, the teacher responded by clearing out the room and bringing in other adults, while locking the student in the space – scared and alone. The mother arrived at the school to find her child terrified with a school resource officer standing over her fourth-grader.

This story isn’t unique. Across the country, schools disproportionately call the police on students with disabilities – especially students of color with disabilities. Students believe they are being arrested and they might experience physical violence or end up in handcuffs as the police try to control them. Even kids as young as 10 can develop lifelong fears of the police because of these actions.

Police lack the skills to interact with people with disabilities

The contentious relationship between the police and people with disabilities extends into adulthood. Many law enforcement officers lack the training to work and communicate with people with disabilities, and a few of those stories go public.

In one video, officers make fun of an elderly woman with dementia as she gets arrested. Her crime was forgetting to pay for $14 worth of items and then ignoring an officer’s questions. The woman was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed while the police mocked her.

In Oklahoma, a man was shot and killed by police because he didn’t respond to their orders. He was deaf.

There are also reports of police treating people with epilepsy violently because they assume the seizures they experience are caused by drugs and not medical conditions.

How are these individuals expected to turn to law enforcement when they experience crimes against them? How is someone who has always feared the police expected to trust them and earnestly believe that their aggressors will be brought to justice? Yes, the increase in hate crime numbers are shocking, but they are also grossly underreported.

Systematic change is needed to understand hate crime rates

While the data from the FBI highlights the rise in hate crimes against people with disabilities, it is far from complete. Not only do most police precincts fail to report their numbers, but countless individuals feel too scared or intimidated to file reports. Even those who don’t fear police might not think anything will come out of reporting a hate crime.

It’s up to police officers, not people with disabilities, to change these hate crime numbers. Investment in community training and increased accommodations can lead to better engagement with the disabled community. This can also help people feel more confident when reporting hate crimes. However, these changes cannot happen overnight. It will take significant investments and decades of work to overcome the fears created by law enforcement.

To learn more about disability and law enforcement, turn to our ADA Guidelines. You can also follow our news updates which cover stories related to people with disabilities and their experiences in America.


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