Reporting a hate crime is notoriously hard. Can this digital tool change that?

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For victims of hate crimes, the struggle for justice is often a long one.

Many victims never find that justice, experts say, because they don’t know where — or how — to seek it out. A substantial number may not even be sure they’ve been the victim of a legitimate hate crime or they’re too ashamed or nervous to contact law enforcement, so they choose to remain quiet, experts say.

“The data reveals that about 80 percent of Americans who want access to legal information or services can’t get it,” said Nicole Bradick, chief strategy officer for CuroLegal, an organization that aims to improve legal access via technology. “On the one hand, that’s because people believe the cost is too high. One the other, that’s because taking steps to advocate for yourself in the justice world are seen as big scary steps.”

In some ways, they’re right, said Bradick, a former civil rights attorney in Maine. Depending on the nature of the incident and where it occurred, reporting a hate crime can involve multiple organizations — some public, some private and some overlapping — and the process can vary depending on state laws. The information is out there but it exists in isolated pockets around the Web, Bradick said.

To simplify what can be an incredibly confusing process, Bradick and a team of legal experts from Cisco Systems and the American Bar Association’s Center for Innovation unveiled a digital tool last week to help streamline portions of the reporting process by turning it into an easy-to-use Web application: hatecrimehelp.com.

The free service uses a Mad Libs-like format in which users fill out a paragraph with predetermined words, such as “verbal hate,” “property damage,” “violence” or “harassment,” describing the incident.

Users can add the location of the alleged crime, their ZIP code and the motivation for the incident, such as “ethnicity,” “religion,” “gender identity,” “sexual orientation” or “immigration status.”

Once completed, the page offers contact information for local nonprofits and government resources accepting hate-crime reporting, as well as a feature that explains “what to expect” from each organization. The site also explains the difference between a hate crime and a “bias incident” and offers a side-by-side look at a state’s law vs. federal law.

“We wanted to create technology that would present the law in digestible ways,” Bradick said, noting that the design came from putting themselves in the shoes of a victim and spending months doing Google searches to better understand the challenges victims face online. “Almost everybody has a smartphone and can pull up this information on a browser from anywhere. We’re huge believers in the idea that technology can scale access to knowledge.”

Bradick said the page was prompted by the spike in hate crimes since last year’s presidential election, an increase that has been documented by academics, politicians and experts at organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The FBI claims there were more than 5,800 hate crimes incidents in 2015 involving about 7,100 victims in 2015, the most recent year that statistics were available.

As The Washington Post reported Sept. 22, another division of the Department of Justice that relies on a survey to ask Americans directly about whether they’ve been victims of a hate crime paints a vastly different picture of hate:

“Each year, the results are quite different than the landscape of crime delineated in the FBI’s report,” reporter Janell Ross wrote. “Between 2004 and 2015, people living in the United States reported experiencing an average of 250,000 hate crimes each year, according to a report released by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Justice Statistics in June. In the last five years of that period, nearly half of the hate crimes — 48 percent — self-reported by victims were “motivated by racial bias” and 90 percent involved violence, according to the DOJ report.”

To address underreporting, Bradick said, her team plans to do user testing to make sure their site is as easy to use as possible.

“When it comes to the law, we don’t make it very easy for people to avoid feeling overwhelmed and to protect themselves or take advantage of the protections the law provides them,” she said. “Hopefully, we can begin to change that.”

 

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