Hate crimes up slightly in Georgia, despite no law on the books

Georgia police agencies reporting

Seven police departments reported 44 hate crimes in the state in 2015:

Cobb County police: 30

Atlanta police: 4

Henry County police: 3

University of Georgia police: 3

Georgia Tech police: 2

Gwinnett County police: 1

Athens-Clarke County police: 1

Hate crimes reported by Southern states, 2015

Mississippi: 0

Arkansas*: 5

Alabama: 10

Louisiana: 38

Georgia*: 44

South Carolina*: 55

Florida: 72

Missouri: 100

Virginia: 158

North Carolina: 162

Kentucky: 188

Texas: 191

Tennessee: 221

*State does not have a hate crimes statute

Sources: FBI Uniform Crime Statistics; Anti-Defamation League

Sandy Springs and Savannah reported no hate crimes in 2015. DeKalb and Clayton counties reported no hate crimes. Kennesaw State and Georgia State universities, both zero.

Cobb County had 30 — 68 percent of every hate crime reported in Georgia last year. The county’s police department was one of only seven agencies statewide that reported any hate crimes.

Those are some of the puzzling data points in the FBI’s annual release this week of hate crimes by state. Georgia is one of only five states that don’t have a law specifically prohibiting hate crimes, defined as an offense committed against a person because of his or her race, sexual orientation, religion, disability or other factors.

“There are just not that many,” said Lisa Weaver-Johnson, with the records division at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. “There are quite a few agencies that do send the negative reports to tell us they don’t have any.”

But Janice Mathis, executive director for the National Council of Negro Women, said the relatively low number of hate crimes reported in Georgia is a trend throughout the Southeast. Alabama reported 12, South Carolina had 69 and the state of Mississippi reported none, according to the FBI. Mathis said the crimes are under-reported because of a population slow to move past discrimination.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that there are only a handful of hate crimes reported in Georgia,” she said.

Still, how could Cobb County alone account for two of every three hate crimes reported in Georgia in 2015? It’s likely that the county doesn’t have more crimes, but simply reports more of them.

In 2015, 44 hate crimes were committed in Georgia, an increase of just three from the previous year. But out of the nearly 500 law enforcement agencies submitting statistics, only seven reported any of the bias crimes, and none was south of metro Atlanta or Athens.

Even though Georgia has no hate-crime law on the books, police are still asked to track these kinds of crimes, and officers are asked to determine whether a hate crime has been committed, defining the law themselves.

“It is an interpretation, and it boils down to (a decision by) every police officer,” Sgt. Dana Pierce with Cobb County police said.

Cobb police reported six more hate crimes in 2015 than in 2014, according to numbers provided to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. But none of the city police departments within Cobb — Smyrna, Marietta, Kennesaw, Acworth, Austell and Powder Springs — reported any hate crimes.

Cobb police say the higher total in Cobb could be attributed to a computer system that enables officers to designate an incident as a hate crime, if he or she believes that it is. Not all police departments use the same internal reporting system.

When officers complete incident reports, Pierce said, there’s an option to include whether hate or bias was involved. From there, the bias can be further labeled, such as being related to race or religion. Detectives who later review the incident will learn more about the alleged crime and whether it was indeed a hate crime, police said.

“It’s when you get down to that narrative that you can really see what’s happening,” Pierce said.

The Atlanta police department, which has a LGBT Liasion unit, reported only four hate crimes in 2015. But the department’s reporting system also enables officers to flag a crime in which they believe bias is a factor. The department’s Special Enforcement Section will then investigate to determine whether a hate crime occurred, according to APD’s officer guide for bias reporting.

The GBI asks law enforcement agencies throughout the state to submit data on hate crimes, Weaver-Johnson said. But the majority don’t report any bias crimes, and those that do, as with APD, follow up with additional scrutiny of the incident.

“Usually a secondary investigation is taking place to determine if it’s a hate crime,” Weaver-Johnson said.

Most of the Georgia police agencies with the largest jurisdictions provided no hate crime reports for 2015, including Sandy Springs, with slightly more than 100,000 residents, and the Savannah metro area, home to about 240,000. Just over 10 million people live in Georgia.

Among state colleges and universities, many schools with large student bodies reported zero hate crimes for the year, including Georgia State University, Kennesaw State University and Georgia Southern University. The University of Georgia reported three.

A possible explanation for few hate crimes being reported is the motive may not be obvious, said Maj. S.R. Fore with DeKalb County police. His agency reported no hate crimes for 2014 or 2015.

“A lot of times with assaults or robberies, we may not know the motive at the time of the report,” Fore said. “That’s going to require some investigation.”

For some agencies, tallying hate crimes amounts means more work since it isn’t law. The definition isn’t clear as with state laws.

“Some of them are just saying they’re understaffed and don’t have time to do everything they need to do,” Weaver-Johnson said.

Whether or not Georgia has a hate crimes law, the definition is murky, police officers say. A 27-year veteran of law enforcement, Fore said hate crimes are not as prevalent as some might think, and he can’t recall many incidents.

“The amount of actual, true hate crimes I can probably count on one hand,” Fore said.