WASHINGTON - Despite rising incidence of far-right violence in the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Justice Department continue to deprioritize investigating the violence and prosecuting its perpetrators, according to a report released Monday.
While a handful of high-profile cases are sometimes designated as acts of “domestic terrorism” and receive the law enforcement agencies’ full investigative attention, the overwhelming majority are treated as hate crimes, gang violence and run-of-the-mill homicides, pushing them down the agencies’ list of priorities, the report says.
The report was prepared by the Brennan Center for Justice a nonpartisan law and policy institute at New York University School of Law.
The label the FBI chooses to characterize an act of violence is important in determining the amount of resources devoted to the case and how wide an investigative net is cast, according to the report. Investigating terrorism currently tops the FBI’s list of eight priorities and is well resourced. Hate crimes rank fifth while gang violence comes in sixth.
“Under current Justice Department policies, how far-right violence targeting people based on race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability gets categorized is often arbitrary,” report authors Michael German and Emmanuel Mauleon write in “Fighting Far-Right Violence and Hate Crimes.” “But it has significant consequences for how federal officials label these crimes in public statements, how they prioritize and track them, and whether they will investigate and prosecute them.”
The report follows a string of high-profile far-right attacks that have highlighted the problem of right wing violence in the United States. Last October, white supremacist Robert Bowers burst into a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, synagogue, gunning down 11 worshippers and wounding six others. In April, another far-right extremist, John T. Earnest, walked into a San Diego synagogue, shooting four people, one fatally, just weeks after setting fire to a nearby mosque.
Yet the FBI doesn’t keep track of the casualties, which serves to keep analysts and policymakers in the dark about the extent of the problem and how best to tackle it.
“It’s astonishing that with the FBI transitioning into an intelligence agency (in the post-9/11 era), it doesn’t know how many people white supremacists kill across this country every year,” said German, a former FBI undercover agent.
The FBI publishes an annual tally of hate crimes by race, religion, gender and a host of other categories. Last year, the bureau reported a total of more than 7,000 hate crimes in 2017.
Handing off hate crimes
The Brennan Center report also criticized the Justice Department for deferring the vast majority of hate crime investigations to state and local authorities who “are often ill-equipped or unwilling to properly respond to these crimes.” The report recommended that the FBI “treat all hate crime cases where deadly violence is involved among its top investigative priorities.”
The Justice Department prosecutes about 25 hate crime cases a year.
Asked for comment on the report, a Justice Department spokeswoman cited recent statements by top Justice officials that prosecuting hate crimes and domestic terrorism remains a top priority for the Justice Department.
“Anyone who commits a crime motivated by hatred for the race, color, religion, national origin or other protected trait of any person should be on notice: The United States government will use its enormous power to bring perpetrators to justice, and we will continue to do so for as long as it takes to rid our nation of these vile and monstrous crimes,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a statement Friday after a federal judge imposed a life sentence on James Alex Fields Jr., who drove his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, murdering a civil rights activist.
The FBI did not respond immediately to a request for comment on the report.
In May, Mike McGarrity, the FBI’s top counterterrorism official, told U.S. lawmakers that the bureau doesn’t “differentiate between a domestic attack we’re trying to stop or an international terrorism attack.”
“It’s a terrorist attack we’re trying to stop,” McGarrity testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security.