Sikh hate crime encounters show importance of data collection

Crime data collection by the government and law enforcement is a fragmented, often voluntary and messy process, likely hiding the true scale of how bias-motivated crimes are affecting communities of color and faith, experts say.

Inderjit Singh Mukker, a Sikh American, assaulted in a hate crime in Chicago on Sept 8, 2015 – PHOTO THE SIKH COALITION
By Vignesh Ramachandran | PBS | United States |

Lakhwant Singh was working in his suburban Denver liquor store in April 2020 when a man walked in, assaulted him, damaged products, shouted profanity and yelled “go back to your country.”

Singh, who is Sikh and wears a turban, followed the man outside to take a photo of his license plate so he could report the incident. The man then rammed his car into Singh, injuring his arms, legs and head, and breaking his pelvis, which required surgery. According to law enforcement, the suspect, a white man, targeted Singh because he believed he was an “Arab.”

Almost three months after the attack and following pressure from the Sikh community and other civil rights advocates, the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office in Colorado brought several charges against the suspect, including those for a bias-motivated crime. The case remains pending while authorities determine the suspect’s mental competence.

Singh’s experience was another example of the gaps in the way hate crimes are recorded and reported — for several communities, but especially Sikhs, who are often misunderstood by the public and law enforcement because of their unique religious traditions, like covering their hair with turbans. They are among several groups for which hate crime data may be failing to reveal the scale of the problem. Several high-profile incidents against Sikhs have included discussion of hate crime as motivation. In April, a shooter killed eight people, including four Sikhs, in a mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis; while the motive is still under investigation, Indianapolis police said the perpetrator visited white supremacist websites before the attack. Eight years earlier, another white supremacist killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Just days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a gunman fatally shot a Sikh owner of an Arizona gas station. But many others fall through the cracks.

Crime data collection by the government and law enforcement is a fragmented, often voluntary and messy process, likely hiding the true scale of how bias-motivated crimes are affecting communities of color and faith, experts say. As hate crimes against East and Southeast Asians, in particular, have surged since the pandemic’s start, advocates have called on the government for more and better data collection. In 2019, the most recent year the FBI has released national statistics, local law enforcement agencies reported 7,314 hate crime incidents around the country. But more than half of hate crime victimizations generally go unreported to law enforcement, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Groups outside government, like Stop AAPI Hate, have recorded much higher numbers — 6,600 reports of hate crimes against the Asian American community since March 2020, bringing a larger scale of violence and harassment to the attention of lawmakers, the media and the public.

The quality of data collected by the government could change under the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act and Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act that Congress passed on May 18 and President Joe Biden signed into law two days later. The new legislation acknowledges that “a complete understanding of the national problem posed by hate crimes is hindered by incomplete data from Federal, State, and local jurisdictions” through the FBI’s existing Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program. The legislation is intended to help modernize the federal hate crime reporting system and will provide grants to local law enforcement departments to help better train them to report hate crime data.

Kevin Grisham, who studies hate crimes at California State University, San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, said there has been a consistent discrepancy between the FBI data and what Asian Americans actually experience. Grisham said sometimes incidents against Sikhs are misidentified by law enforcement who might record a crime as bias against another religion other than Sikhism. “That skews the data and really hurts policy decision makers,” Grisham said.

For years, the Sikh community, including the advocacy group the Sikh Coalition, pushed authorities to recognize anti-Sikh hate crimes, and the FBI agreed to start doing so in 2015. Since then, the department has tracked 142 anti-Sikh incidents as part of the annual UCR program, which aggregates numbers from law enforcement agencies across the country. There are an estimated 500,000 Sikhs living in America.

The FBI acknowledged in a statement to the PBS NewsHour that before it added an anti-Sikh category, these crimes were categorized under a more general “other” category within religious bias. “Disaggregating this data has allowed the FBI UCR Program to provide more specific religion bias data to the nation,” the FBI said. “The addition of the anti-Sikh category has led to more accurate statistics and understanding of the threat which lends itself to a more targeted and effective mitigative effort.”

Read the full article entitled ‘How the Sikh community’s experiences with hate crimes shows why data collection is so important’ (PBS, 21 June 2021), here.

Vignesh Ramachandran is a digital news editor for the PBS NewsHour. Ramachandran is also co-founder of Red, White and Brown Media, focused on building media representation and sharing South Asian American stories. Previously, he was at ProPublica, the Stanford Computational Journalism Lab, Mashable and NBC News Digital.

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