SALT LAKE CITY — A new app developed by University of Utah geographers in partnership with the DIGIT Lab is attempting to fill the gap in the nation's hate crime reports.
The data gap exists as a result of low reporting from victims to police and inconsistent reporting from police to the FBI, one researcher notes.
"There just aren't good data around so we don't really understand how hate affects communities in general," said Richard Medina, one developer of the app and assistant professor in U. Department of Geography. "So what we're trying to get accomplished is really, you know in research terms, a better understanding of hate but also we're trying to get that information to communities and government and law enforcement so that just a better understanding is available."
The FBI, which tracks hate-motivated crimes across the country, recorded a 17 percent increase in hate crimes from 2016 to 2017, the most recent year data is available. But experts estimate the number is likely higher.
The pilot app, named Hate Incident Reporting System, allows users to anonymously report hate crimes or hate incidents to a secure database for research purposes. It will also be helpful in identifying patterns of hate-based incidents, researchers noted.
The creators differentiated between a hate crime and a hate incident, because not every instance of hate is illegal.
"Hate crimes have to be a crime, right? So they have to involve violence, property damage," explained Emily Nicolosi, app developer and doctoral researcher with U. Department of Geography. "We're also looking at incidents that are federally protected of hate speech and propaganda."
This gap in data presents a "huge problem" to anyone trying to address the issue, from researchers to law enforcement to government officials, Nicolosi said.
"We just don't know that much about it," she said.
The app contributes to a recent statewide conversation about hate crimes. Earlier this month, Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law a hate crime bill that toughens criminal penalties when victims are chosen because of their race, religion, sexual orientation or other personal characteristics.
Medina said he thinks the law shows that Utah is moving in the right direction and he hopes it motivates people to participate in the conversation.
"Because there's a hate crime law now, I hope that the community is a little more interested and maybe more willing to provide information," he said.
According to the June 2017 National Crime Victimization Survey, about 54 percent of incidents of hate crime victimization were not reported to police from 2011-15.
"The problem is a lot of victims don't report to police because they might think that the police won't want to be bothered, or that it wouldn't really be effective, or that it might cause trouble for the victim," Nicolosi said.
She pointed out that certain populations might perceive more risk in reporting to police.
"This could be a concern, say for example, with people who have immigrated to this country without documentation," she said. "If they reported a hate crime to police they could potentially get arrested, and that's an issue because we know that immigrants are often targets of hate."
Even when hate crimes are reported to local law enforcement, she noted that the information still might not make it to the FBI due to lack of training or departmental resources.
In the past, some police agencies in the Beehive State hadn't sent hate crime reports to the FBI for years, according to an Associated Press report illustrating a nationwide problem of agencies failing to report all crimes to the FBI.
"The data on hate crimes is really astonishingly lacking on a national level so we're trying to kind of create a stronger database of hate crime," she said.
Hopefully, Medina said, the app will receive enough reports to analyze and conduct further research. Going forward, the pair would also like to meet with potentially targeted communities and see how they can make the app more useful.
"We are planning to talk to police about this app and how we can work together," Nicolosi said.
While outreach is mainly focused in Utah to begin with, Nicolosi said the researchers hope in the future it will be used nationwide.
"We really have high hopes for this app, we're hoping that eventually it will be used across the country," she said.
The app launched on Google Play last week, and so far it has about 35 downloads and about 10 reports, according to Medina. It is expected to launch on Apple's App Store soon, he added.
Medina said he's optimistic those numbers will increase but said he's unsure if the number will reach a "critical mass of reports where we can make a difference."
"We definitely want more than the FBI's reporting," he added, but noted those numbers are more than he was expecting within the first days of launching.
Last year, Medina and Nicolosi, along with Simon Brewer and Andrew M. Linke, published an academic article about hate crime titled "Geographies of Organized Hate in America: A Regional Analysis."
It was in the process of researching that study that Nicolosi and Medina decided to do something to address the lack of data available on hate crimes.
"As researchers, you can't do that much about a problem unless you really understand the problem itself," she said. "So that's where we are with this. We're trying to get a better idea of what this problem looks like."
It's important to understand how hate affects a community, Medina said.
"I mean just generally, if you have a lot of hate in your community then there are more threats and risks to people," Medina noted. "We want to have a good community here in Utah, throughout Utah and in Salt Lake. You know if people understand the way others are affected by hate in that community I think it would just make for a better environment altogether."