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How Many Hate Crimes Happen In Vermont? FBI Statistics Don't Tell The Whole Story

Anti-Semitic and racist graffiti on a hay storage barn at Andersonville Farm in Glover, Vermont.
Jasper Hill Farm
Workers at Andersonville Farm, in Glover, discovered this graffiti on a hay storage barn on September 8, 2017, and Vermont State Police responded to the incident. Note: This image has been edited to remove profanity.

Reported hate crimes went up in Vermont last year according to the FBI. It was the second year the state saw an increase, but the exact number of hate crimes that take place in the state remains unclear.

The FBI noted 34 reported hate crimes in Vermont in 2017, but that isn't necessarily the whole story. That's because the hate crime numbers come from local law enforcement agencies, which means it's on them to properly identify incidents — andthat doesn't always happen.

The FBI defines hate crimes as offenses that have the added motivation of bias.

In Vermont, 17 agencies reported hate crimes last year to the FBI, but after asking for public records, VPR found that at least five of the agencies included incidents that were not actually hate crimes per the FBI definition.

One of those five was the Franklin County Sheriff's Office:

“After reviewing the FBI standards for bias motivation, Deputy Renning modified his original incident,” wrote the office in an email to VPR. “The incident will be updated and removed from the FBI Database the next time the state pulls our 2017 data.”

Four other police agencies — Hartford, Middlebury, St. Johnsbury and the University of Vermont — responded with similar statements.

Then, there were at least two agencies — Rutland and Brattleboro — that had additional incidents not reported to the FBI, though it’s unclear if all of those incidents should have been classified as hate crimes.

“I realize that the FBI report you saw mentioned just 2 such incidents, but I actually found 5 incidents with codes other than the BM88 for "no bias", so I'm sending all 5,” wrote the office manager at the Brattleboro Police Department in an email to VPR.

On top of that, several Vermont law enforcement agencies said their records system didn't let them search for bias-motivated incidents, so it's hard to double check their numbers.

There are also agencies that might have investigated hate crimes that, for some reason, didn’t make it into the FBI’s count. For example, Vermont State Police weren’t listed as reporting any hate crimes, but they did respond to six incidents where there was possible bias motivation — including one where racist graffiti was sprayed on a barn in Glover.

So what is the correct number of hate crimes that occured in Vermont? Lt. Garry Scott, of the Vermont State Police, doesn’t know.

“I don't know which way it will actually go but I don't think it's the correct number and I think there's a lot of factors,” Scott said.

Capt. Garry Scott, director of fair and impartial policing at Vermont State Police, seated.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Lt. Garry Scott is director of fair and impartial policing at Vermont State Police.

Scott, the director of fair and impartial policing for the Vermont Sate Police, says one factor is human error — like an officer accidentally mislabeling a crime. But paperwork isn’t the sole problem.

“We need to do a better job of the investigation right up front,” Scott said.

When cops respond to a call, they need to recognize when a crime might be motivated by bias, Scott said.

For example: in the past, graffiti of a swastika on a public building or bridge might not be marked as a hate crime. But Scott says investigators need to approach these incidents differently.

“Get out of the mindset … that the building owner is the victim of that crime,” he said. “It doesn't end there. It goes out to the people who are driving by and seeing that, and it can have a very visceral reaction to them for their history of what they've gone through.”

In Vermont, community justice leaders agree more training could help.

Tabitha Pohl-Moore, president of the Rutland-area branch of the NAACP, said officers need to learn how to ask questions to determine if they’re responding to a hate crime.

“Because I think a lot of folks write things off,” she said. “And I don’t think ... it's because they’re trying to be horrible people. I think that folks generally are not trained to look for this sort of thing, even in the police department.”

Pohl-Moore added that it’s also on supervisors to check the work of officers in the field.

Outright Vermont Executive Director Dana Kaplan said while everyone has biases, it’s especially important for people in positions of power to understand how that bias might show up in their work.

“As we know in terms of the nature of how privilege works, if that’s not part of your identity and you haven’t been forced to sort of do some of that learning and awareness-raising based on your own experience, then you might not be set up to automatically do that work,” Kaplan said.

"I think that folks generally are not trained to look for this sort of thing, even in the police department." — Tabitha Pohl-Moore, Rutland NAACP

It's hard to know how many incidents were missed in the most recent hate crime tally — to get an accurate number, you'd have to review all the crimes in the state.

And poor data on hate crimes isn't a problem unique to Vermont.

“Many police agencies still have trouble figuring out what is a hate crime,” said Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University. “And for small communities in Vermont, it’s not unusual that you might report zero. Hate crimes are rare events and they don’t happen in every community every year — but, you know, if you’re not trained to look for it you won’t find it.”

Without good data on hate crimes, Pohl-Moore said, it's hard to know what's going on.

“When you have faulty data it makes it easier for people to hide behind faulty data rather than do the work of improvement,” she said. “And I also think that that data would also provide insight into what type of improvements need to be made.”

But those improvements require resources that Pohl-Moore thinks many agencies lack.

“If they don't have what they need to be able to do this, then they have to sacrifice things. And the easiest things to sacrifice are the things that are the quietest," Pohl-Moore said. "And things that are the quietest are the people who are ... marginalized because it's a smaller population."

According to Lt. Scott of the Vermont State Police, the agency is working to improve officer training. He said the Vermont Attorney General’s Office is also trying to put together a task force to tackle the issue and to track hate crimes in Vermont.

Correction 11:58 a.m. 12/21/2018: A previous version of this story mispelled Tabitha Pohl-Moore's first name.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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