State's hate-crimes report sends mixed signals

Tennessee released its most recent statistics on hate-crimes investigations last month, and many interested parties pored over the results. Like any statistical analysis, they came away with figures that were both comforting and troublesome.

First, the good news: On paper at least, the state saw a drop in overall hate crimes reported. After a 27 percent increase fro 2006 through 2008, last year saw a drop to 52 recorded sexual-bias crimes, down from 60 in 2008.

Then comes the bad news: Crimes against transgendered persons weren’t counted since they are currently not covered under the state’s hate crimes sentence enhancement act, and many GLBT people, especially those in rural areas, often don’t report assaults. And by any measure, hate crimes against the GLBT community remain high, especially when compared to other groups.

When it’s all lumped together, though, there’s still some cause for cautious optimism.

“Overall, the report is good news,” said outgoing Tennessee Equality Project board chair Chris Sanders. “The report is a reminder that areas that are becoming more tolerant such as Nashville still have work to do in reducing the number of bias related incidents.”

“The report is a reminder that areas that are becoming more tolerant such as Nashville still have work to do in reducing the number of bias related incidents.” 

- Chris Sanders

The TBI report does not cover crimes based on gender identity unless it is now putting such crimes in with the category gender, Sanders added. “The federal hate crimes law was signed in 2009 which covers both sexual orientation and gender identity, so hopefully the 2010 report that comes out next year will have a full breakdown of statistics. The lack of specific reporting is another reason to pass the Richardson/Marrero bill in the legislature that would add gender identity and expression to the state hate crimes statute.”

“The fact that the 2009 numbers statewide fell to the already high 2007 numbers is progress, but still indicates a severe problem in Tennessee,” said Dr. Shawn Stewart, chair of the Tennessee Equality Foundation’s Hate Crimes Committee, “Hate crimes are still a primary concern especially in the GLBT community because this is the only area of hate crimes in the state to stay relatively unchanged. Crimes against members of the GLBT community and individuals perceived to be part of the community are still alarmingly high. Training officers in reporting crimes correctly is still a challenge; as an organization which travels the state to educate officers on accurate reporting, it is apparent officers have difficulty addressing these issues. “

According to the TBI, Davidson County saw 16 hate crimes in 2009, compared to 11 in 2008. Those numbers were in the single digits for Rutherford, Sumner, Wilson and Williamson Counties. The figures were about the same Memphis and Shelby County, which came as no real surprise to Jonathan Cole, incoming TEP board chair.

“It could be that the urban jurisdictions are doing a better job of capturing data like this, and our more rural jurisdictions are not,” Cole said. “It seems at first glance that the numbers for gay men are flat, but that they are rising against lesbians and the transgendered. We’ll be looking more closely at the report, and we think that the federal legislation will help in terms of capturing numbers based on gender identity.”

Having stronger data should also help in the push to add gender identity to the hate-crimes statue in Tennessee, Cole added.

Lower numbers in rural areas could be from underreporting, but also from a lack of incidents as well, added Joe Rhymer, chair of TEP’s Tri-Cities Committee.

“Things in outlying areas may not be reported, or it could be some miseducation in terms of the policies, but I am a firm believer that the rural areas aren’t as violent as the major cities,so we don’t’ have as many crimes to be reported,” Rhymer said. “But we also keep the word out; we have a prominent Facebook page, we meet with the local press association, our HIV network, PFLAG and other supporters, so that if anyone hears anything, they can reach out to us.”
Rhymer added that while hate crimes may be less of an issue in rural areas, basic discrimination is rampant, so to combat the overall issue education continues to be the key. It’s a point that Stewart makes as well.

“We must address hate wherever and whenever it occurs because it undermines the feeling of safety and security of all citizens in the state,” he said. “A state where some of the citizens are being targeted for hate is a state where everyone feels unsafe. An attack against one is an attack against us all.”

To see the TBI’s Hate Crime Report, click here.

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