Crimes fueled by hatred or intolerance tend to stick in our collective consciousness like a wound that never quite heals.
An attack on a Vietnamese temple last June, in which a man broke a statue while shouting “devil worshiper!” nonsense, rallied hundreds of people to show solidarity with Tacoma’s Buddhist community.
A 2015 assault on a lesbian looking for her lost dog in East Tacoma, in which a man used a pocketknife, marker pen and dog leash on her while spewing homophobic slurs, vexes all the more because the perpetrator wasn’t caught.
But statistics say Tacoma has a relatively small number of hate crimes. In 2017, the record shows only eight crimes were motivated by bias against a race or ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, according to newly released FBI figures.
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That makes five straight years in single digits. This year Tacoma is on pace to have even fewer incidents, according to Results253, the city’s online database.
A person might feel overly comfortable living here — especially when recorded hate crimes are skyrocketing elsewhere. Nationally, the FBI reported a 17-percent increase between 2016 and 2017; in Washington, the numbers are up a startling 42 percent.
While these offenses seem to have plateaued in Tacoma, they zoomed to new heights in Washington’s two other largest cities. Seattle reported 232 incidents in 2017, up from 118 a year earlier. Spokane logged 28 incidents last year, more than triple the 8 it saw in 2016.
When did Tacoma transform into Pleasantville? Have we become a city of uncommon respect and bonhomie, where people don’t just say “hi” to strangers on the street; they say “hello, how are you?” in art displays on their front lawns?
Have Tacomans somehow resisted the tide of division, incivility and outright hostility that’s swept the U.S. since the 2016 elections?
If only we were so lucky.
The truth is that hate crimes are historically underreported, often because victims grow accustomed to abusive treatment, fear a backlash or don’t trust authorities. You can bet Tacoma is no exception.
Nor are its suburban neighbors, though statistically they appear to be hate-free utopias. Over the last three years, a total of zero hate crimes were reported to the FBI by Bonney Lake, Buckley, Eatonville, Edgewood, Fircrest, Gig Harbor, Sumner and University Place.
Eight communities, with a combined population topping 100,000. That’s hard to swallow.
The National Crime Victimization Survey estimates that between 2011 and 2015, 54 percent of hate crimes didn’t come to police attention. Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein highlighted the problem at a roundtable with law enforcement officers last month, after the Tree of Life Synagogue rampage in Pittsburgh.
“We need you to help us understand the reasons that keep victims from reporting hate crimes,” Rosenstein said. “We also need to understand the barriers that law enforcement officers and agencies face in reporting hate crimes to the FBI.”
Those were sobering words, 20 years after the murder of a gay Wyoming college student named Matthew Shepard galvanized the hate-crime-fighting movement.
Rosenstein announced a new website for the public and police to enter hate-crime information; technical assistance will be offered to officers, too. Those initiatives are fine, but nothing’s more effective than cops building stronger rapport with marginalized communities.
Public-awareness campaigns can be helpful, like the “hate won’t win” crusade that caught fire in Tacoma and elsewhere after the 2015 church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.
And don’t underestimate the power of standing up to inflammatory rhetoric that doesn’t show up in hate-crime data. Case in point: Tacomas Against Nazis, a grassroots group that’s been aggressive this year exposing hate that hides in plain sight.
FBI statistics don’t tell the whole story. Hate crimes are not devouring Seattle, and they’re not detouring around Tacoma. But in 2018, this much should be clear: None of us lives in Pleasantville.