While law enforcement officials have identified hate crimes as a growing problem in California, it is worse than the numbers would suggest.
California is undercounting hate crimes, according to a state audit released Thursday, because outdated policies have led law enforcement agencies to misidentify or fail to report incidents.
"This report concludes that although reported hate crimes have increased by more than 20 percent from 2014 to 2016, law enforcement has not been doing enough to identify, report, and respond to these crimes," State Auditor Elaine Howle wrote in a letter accompanying the audit.
Hate crimes are criminal acts committed, at least in part, based on real or perceived characteristics of the victim, such as race, religion, gender, sexuality or disability. They spiked by more than 11 percent in 2016, the most recent year of data available, with race-related crimes topping the list.
But when the auditor's office reviewed four law enforcement agencies — including the Los Angeles Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff's Department — it found that they had failed to report 97 hate crimes to the California Department of Justice in recent years, or about 14 percent of all hate crimes they identified during that period.
The audit blamed the Department of Justice, which tracks hate crime statistics statewide and submits them to federal authorities, for making no effort to ensure local agencies submitted data. The department does not maintain a complete or accurate list of all law enforcement agencies in California.
"Correct reporting to DOJ is essential for raising awareness about the occurrence of bias-motivated offenses nationwide and to understanding the nature and magnitude of hate crimes in the State," the audit stated.
Two agencies, LAPD and the San Francisco State University Police Department, were also criticized for incorrectly identifying some hate crimes as hate incidents, a lesser classification when no crime has occurred.
The auditor's office reviewed 15 LAPD hate incident cases between 2014 and 2016 and determined that three of them were actually hate crimes. (The LAPD disputed this conclusion.) Out of 15 hate incidents at San Francisco State between 2007 and 2016 that it analyzed, the auditor's office said eight were hate crimes.
"Officers at these law enforcement agencies might have been better equipped to identify hate crimes if their agencies had implemented better methods for doing so and provided periodic training," the audit stated. The San Francisco State police's hate crime policy, for example, did not adequately reflect state definitions.
Following the release of the audit on Thursday, Attorney General Xavier Becerra unveiled a new hate crimes prevention website, with information for the public and law enforcement about how to identify and report hate crimes.
"An attack motivated by hate against one of us is an attack on all of us. We must strive to make California a place of tolerance — hate crimes have no place here," he said in a statement. "At the California Department of Justice, we are doing everything in our power to ensure our resources, protocols, and other important public information are accessible to all Californians."
Over the past decade, hate crimes in California have been successfully prosecuted at just half the rate of felonies overall, the audit noted. While prosecutors statewide secured an 84 percent conviction rate for felonies between 2007 and 2016, the rate fluctuated between 40 percent and 51 percent annually for hate crimes.
The auditor's office found that a lack of identifiable witnesses or sufficient evidence were major barriers for prosecutors. But after surveying 245 law enforcement agencies across the state, it found that more than 30 percent do not use any methods to encourage the public to report hate crimes.
"Hate crimes are likely to continue to go underreported by victims and witnesses until law enforcement agencies effectively engage with vulnerable communities," the audit stated.