The FBI said Monday it received more than 7,000 reports of hate crimes last year, even though thousands of police departments around the country failed to contribute any data to the bureau's new crime reporting system.
In its annual report, the FBI said there were 7,262 hate crime incidents in the United States in 2021. By comparison, 2020 saw 8,263 bias-motivated criminal acts.
But the figures do not imply a year-on-year decline in hate crimes, FBI officials cautioned, noting that about 4,000 law enforcement agencies, including several of the nation's largest police departments, failed to make the switch to the FBI's National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).
"Although the hate crime statistics reported to us are lower in 2021, hate crime statistics overall are not decreasing, meaning of the agencies that are reporting to us, they are reporting an increase in hate crime," an FBI official said during a press call ahead of the report's release.
Asked whether the report makes any year-on-year comparisons meaningless, the official said, "Until we see an increased participation for the law enforcement agencies and recognizing this is a transition year, that would be correct."
The FBI's annual report is widely used by law enforcement, policymakers, experts and community leaders as a broad measure of hate crime in America.
The FBI has been reporting hate crime stats since 1991, using a data collection system that was created in the 1920s.
Though the FBI rolled out the more comprehensive NIBRS in the 1980s and started collecting crime data through the system in recent years, it wasn't until last year that it required all reporting agencies to transition to the system.
The FBI said NIBRS captures more granular details and context about crime, including the day and time of the crime and the relationship of the victim to the offender, allowing police forces to fight crime more effectively.
But many police agencies have been slow to adopt the mechanism. Of the nation's more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies, 11,834 submitted data to the system last year, representing a participation rate of about 65%, down from 93% under the old system in 2020.
With nearly one-third of law enforcement agencies not submitting any data last year, "This is the most incomplete reporting going back to the beginning of the hate crime data collection program decades ago," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino and an expert on hate crimes.
He estimates that the latest FBI report excludes more than 2,000 cases of hate crimes from California and New York City alone.
"The FBI counted only 73 hate crimes from California using 15 out of 740 agencies, while the California attorney general showed over 1,700 [cases]," Levin said.
The exclusion of New York City and California incidents alone suggests that there were more than 9,000 hate crimes in 2021, representing only the second time above that threshold since the FBI collected hate crime data more than three decades ago, Levin said.
"The report needs to be amended," Levin said.
FBI officials did not say whether they plan to update the data. But they stressed that they're working with law enforcement agencies to improve their participation.
Police agency participation for the FBI's 2022 report, which will come out late next year, has already surpassed the 2021 level, with 12,221 departments participating as of December 1, the FBI official said.
The FBI defines hate crime as a criminal offense "motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias(es) against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity."
Under the Biden administration, the Justice Department has made fighting hate crime a priority, charging more than 60 people with federal hate crimes and obtaining 55 convictions.
"The FBI's 2021 Hate Crimes Statistics are a reminder of the need to continue our vigorous efforts to address this pervasive issue in America," Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement. "The Justice Department continues to work with the nation's law enforcement agencies to increase the reporting of hate crime statistics to the FBI to ensure we have the data to help accurately identify and prevent hate crimes."