MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to spend some time now talking about the so-called hate crimes that have been so much in the news of late. Jewish cemeteries in a number of cities have been defaced, and threats have been called into Jewish community centers. Mosques have been burned in cases police have ruled arson. Two Indian men were shot in Kansas, one of them fatally, by a man who allegedly yelled at them to get out of his country. And just last Friday, outside of Seattle, a Sikh man was shot in his driveway by a masked man who allegedly told him to, quote, "go back to your own country."
Now, we're seeing so-called hate crimes for a reason. Just what constitutes a hate crime can be a matter of dispute. And because of that, the reporting about them by different agencies varies tremendously. That's why the nonprofit news organization ProPublica has begun a project called Documenting Hate. ProPublica is using Documenting Hate to track and report on hate crimes with assistance from newsrooms across the country.
A.C. Thompson is one of the reporters at ProPublica that helped launch the project. He joined me from the University of California in Berkeley to talk about it. And I started by asking him just how the project defines hate crimes.
A.C. THOMPSON: A hate crime is going to be something where you commit a crime that would be a crime under any circumstances, but you commit it because of a motivation that is propelled by the victim's identity, so their race or their ethnicity or their religion or sexual orientation.
MARTIN: I think the question some might have is why is this project necessary? I think some would assume that the FBI, for example, would collect this kind of information. Not so?
THOMPSON: The FBI statistics on hate crimes are abysmal. They're a disaster. And the FBI and other government agencies have come out and said that. About 20 percent of the law enforcement agencies in the country don't participate in that data collection. And what you hear from some local sheriffs and police chiefs is they'll say, hey, this is an expensive and time-consuming process providing these stats to the government, and we don't get any money for it, and we have other priorities.
MARTIN: How exactly is your project going to work? And how do you know that your data set will be accurate? I mean, if you're relying on newsrooms to report, isn't that, in a way, subject to their newsgathering priorities?
THOMPSON: We're aiming to augment the data that's out there. And so people are reporting to us incidents that they've experienced, and then we are dispatching our reporters to go out and say, hey, did this really happen? Did it happen the way the person described? Is this really a bias incident? And our vetting is indicating that there's actually far more of these sorts of incidents occurring than are actually showing up in the media or showing up in the government databases.
MARTIN: Have you observed any trends so far since you've started this project? Have you observed whether any particular groups are being targeted?
THOMPSON: We've gotten a ton of reports on anti-Semitic activities - swastikas being drawn in schools. So right now, we're looking at about 250 incidents of blatantly anti-Semitic activity in the real world - that doesn't include online - in the three months after President Trump was elected.
MARTIN: I understand that you're very focused on the what, but does your reporting, to this point, indicate the why? What's the motivation for all of this?
THOMPSON: When we speak to experts who have been studying racial intolerance and extremism for many years what they'll say is the Trump campaign managed to bring in as supporters very fringe elements in American politics - the white nationalists, the virulent anti-Semites, the KKK members, who have posted pro-Trump propaganda on their websites - and that they now feel emboldened and feel that they have a glorious champion in the White House, who might not agree with them on everything, but he definitely agrees with them on some key issues.
MARTIN: What about the other way? I'm thinking, for example, of - I received, for example, an email from a potential Senate candidate, a conservative Republican, who spoke for Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention this year, who says that his son was verbally abused because he is a Trump supporter. Are you similarly tracking incidents of harassment that people indicate is directed at people who support Donald Trump?
THOMPSON: We've definitely reported on some of those incidents. And I should be clear is that those tend to be politically motivated, so they're a little bit different than hate crimes or bias-motivated crimes, but we've definitely reported on them. But it's not part of our data set because our data set basically is built around the concepts of the FBI definition of hate crimes and our definition of bias incidents around identity.
MARTIN: That's A.C. Thompson. He's one of the reporters at ProPublica that has launched that Documenting Hate project. The group is going to attempt to report accurately on incidents of bias across the country. And he joined us now from the University of California at Berkeley. A.C., thanks so much for speaking with us. Keep us posted.
THOMPSON: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.