CHICAGO — Hate crimes in Chicago are up, but the numbers still pale in comparison how many experts believe are really happening here and beyond.
Since 2012, the Chicago Police Department has classified 336 crimes as hate crimes, a figure advocacy groups consider low because of a lack of understanding around what a "hate crime" actually is.
The data, acquired from police via a Freedom of Information Act request, showed that in 2016 there were 73 crimes classified as hate crimes, the highest of any year since 2012, when the department started keeping electronic records of these types of cases.
"It seems very low," said Betsy Shuman-Moore, director of the hate crime project for the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. "We do live with the fact that most hate crimes are underreported. We think that they have been more underreported now than ever."
What is a hate crime?
"I always tell people when you think about a hate crime, it's a crime that sometimes is a misdemeanor — simple battery or assault — and you add the hate element to it," said Kenneth Gunn, the first deputy commissioner of the city's Commission on Human Relations. "A person is targeted because of their connection based on sex, race or whatever."
In Chicago, that determination is made by the Chicago Police Department or the Cook County State's Attorney's Office.
Neither agency would comment on this story, though both pointed toward state laws about how hate crimes are classified.
Under state law, certain crimes may be elevated to hate crimes if the incident occurs "by reason of the actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or national origin of another individual or group of individuals."
In many cases, a hate crime classification would turn what is otherwise a misdemeanor into a felony.
Crimes are classified as hate crimes only after prosecutors decide to do so — and the case would only get to that point if a hate-based motive is found by police.
"There are a variety of reasons why hate crimes are underreported," Schuman-Moore said. "Some have to do with the victims, some have to do with law enforcement.
In many cases, it's the victims who aren't reporting such crimes, said Kim Fountain, chief operating officer for the LGBTQ-focused Center on Halsted.
"There are several reasons for that," Fountain said. "There's a mistrust of systems. There are past experiences or what you hear on the news. Some feel too ashamed or 'I'm going to be re-victimized.' There are other moments where people just want to forget it happened."
In addition to getting victim and witness help in identifying hate crimes, Chicago officials are limited in their resources in efforts to both identify potential hate crimes and investigating them, Fountain said.
"It's not whether they are doing enough. It's not so much that they don't want to do the work, it's that they are terribly under-resourced," she said.
Dealing with potential hate crimes is part of the curriculum for Chicago Police recruits, including units during law classes at the academy as well as attending a daylong "Law Enforcement and Democracy Initiative" event at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.
All police detectives go through a two-hour course on investigating hate crimes, while sergeants and lieutenants are required to attend a session at the museum, where they learn about the role of police in Nazi Europe and "explore the challenges of balancing the rights of people with the protection of society as a whole."
Chicago Police officers who find themselves dealing with a possible hate crime are told to notify their supervisors as well as the regular detectives unit and a separate set of detectives in the Civil Rights Unit, a specialized set of investigators.
"It may be small but no other department in the area has such a unit," Shuman-Moore said. "I think they should have more."
Nearly 80 percent of the Civil Rights Unit cases that were declared hate crimes were handled by just two investigators.
A look at the cases
Nationally, most hate crimes are racially motivated, according to FBI statistics. But in Chicago, the largest share of hate crimes are based around sexual orientation and gender identity. Chicago Police classified 32.1 percent of hate crimes as anti-LGBTQ motivated, the majority of which had gay male victims.
Gunn said that these higher numbers may be because "the LGBT community is more informed about hate crimes than other communities" and might be more inclined to report them.
Anti-black hate crimes accounted for 27.7 percent of Chicago's hate crimes, while anti-Jewish incidents accounted for 11.9 percent.
A number of high-profile incidents were on the list, including the January beating of a mentally disabled white man that was streamed live on Facebook.
Crimes that focus on religious bias tend be harassment or property-based and include incidents such as the vandalism of the Chicago Loop Synagogue earlier this year.
Murder charges are exempt in state law from hate crime classification, because it is already the highest level of felony, though if less severe charges are filed in a particular case, that incident can be classified as a hate crime.
One such incident occurred on Oct. 19, 2012, when Terrance Wright, an openly gay 18-year-old high school student tormented by classmates, was killed by a group who tried to rob him in South Deering, police and family said. Two teens were charged in that case. One of the suspects has already been convicted in juvenile court while another suspect, Jarone Carter, is still being tried.
Though a rise in hate crimes has been reported nationally, advocates say it's hard to tell if they are increasing or if more people are reporting them.
"Even one hate crime has an impact that goes beyond other types of crimes. It terrorizes the neighborhood where it occurs." Shuman-Moore said. "It's so important to report, because if people don't report the hate crime, it's as if it never happened."