Hate crimes have surged since President Donald Trump's election in November, amplifying worries about his Justice Department's commitment to carry on the previous administration's anti-hate crime campaign.
From mosque arsons to vandalism of Jewish community centers, American Muslims and Jews have borne the brunt of the most recent escalation in hate crimes, and advocates worry many offenses may go unpunished.
The U.S. Justice Department sought to calm those concerns on Tuesday, however, saying it is going after hate crimes just as aggressively as it did under the administration of former President Barack Obama.
Eric Treene, the Justice Department's special counsel for religious discrimination, said the message from the White House and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been to fight hate crime as part of a stepped-up anti-crime campaign.
"The attorney general [Jeff Sessions] has made fighting violent crime one of his top priorities," Treene told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on religiously motivated hate crimes. "Addressing hate crimes must be part of our national effort to reduce violent crime."
Asked whether the Justice Department under Trump has changed its policy on hate crime, Treene said, “No, the attorney general has been consistent and strong in his message that hate crime is violent crime and we need to do everything we can ... to fight this problem.”
In February, Sessions, acting on an executive order from Trump, announced the creation of the department's Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which includes a hate crimes subcommittee.
The panel will hold a one-day summit with experts, community organizations and law enforcement agencies to discuss "how best to reduce the incidence of hate crimes in America," Treene said.
In addition, he said, the Justice Department has vigorously pursued cases under all federal hate crime statutes, ranging from bringing charges against a teenager for making threatening calls against Jewish community center locations and another man for threatening Muslim grocery owners in Fort Myers, Florida, to suing several cities for blocking mosque constructions.
Treene did not say how many of the hate crime cases were carried over from the Obama administration or how many hate crime cases the department has opened since Trump's January 20 inauguration.
Vanita Gupta, a former head of the Justice Department's civil rights division under Obama, said the Obama administration prosecuted a record number of hate crime cases during its two terms in office.
Brian Levin, a criminologist and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino, said putting hate crime under the rubric of violent crime "isn't very helpful."
The FBI defines a hate crime as a "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity."
Though sharply down overall since 2000, hate crime has risen in recent years. According to the FBI's most recent data, hate crime rose 7 percent to 5,850 incidents in 2015 from 5,479 incidents in 2014 while violence against Muslims jumped 67 percent and against Jews by 9 percent.
Up 6 percent in 2016
Data collected by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism show that hate crime rose 6 percent last year and has continued to grow in several metropolitan areas in 2017.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents, including harassment, bullying, vandalism and threats, rose by one-third in 2016 and 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017. Since January, Muslim Advocates, an advocacy organization, has recorded more than 80 incidents of violence and threats of violence against Muslims and others mistaken for Muslims.
But the FBI data are thought to understate the extent of hate crime. That is in part because the data are based on voluntary submissions by police departments and partly because victims in immigrant and minority communities are afraid to report crime.
As a result, nearly two-thirds of hate crimes went unreported in recent years, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics, which reported nearly 300,000 "hate crime victimizations" in 2012.
While Treene said there is room for improvement in the data, Gupta urged Congress to make hate crime reporting by the nation's more than 17,000 local police departments mandatory, a call supported by several senators.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, there was something of a pattern to anti-Muslim hate crimes: sharp increases in the wake of high-profile terrorist acts and a spike immediately after Trump's initial Muslim ban proposal announcement in December 2015.There was also an increase in anti-Muslim crimes following Trump's victory.
"Our research shows that statements by political leadership correlate to increases and reductions in hate crimes at critical times, like after terror attacks, and the committee rightly brought up the importance of moral leadership," Levin said.
Lawmakers expressed alarm at the spike in hate crime and pledged legislative support for local efforts to combat hate crime.While Republicans pointed to Trump's pledge to counter hate and prejudice, Democratic critics on the committee took a swipe at the president's divisive rhetoric and policies.