New Jersey officials said hate was spiking. FBI said numbers had fallen

Ritu Chandra, who had a racist encounter at a local park in the summer of 2021, sits at her home in Berkeley Heights, N.J., on January 23, 2022. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Hannah Yoon

Days after a mass shooting in the Atlanta area last March killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, New Jersey leaders raised alarms about rising hate in their state.

In 2020, they said in a Facebook forum, state police recorded 1,441 bias incidents – an all-time high and up 164% from two years earlier.

Rep. Andy Kim, D, who is Korean American, described his 5-year-old son being called “China boy” at day care. Then-state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, a Sikh American once dubbed “turban man” by a conservative radio host, said: “It’s a hate problem we have in this country, and it’s manifesting in this state.”

But the Justice Department took a more circumspect view. FBI analysts compiling an annual hate-crimes report combed through New Jersey’s incident reports and determined that 389 hate crimes were committed in 2020 – a significant drop from the previous year and about 27% of what local law enforcement had recorded.

The rest “did not meet the definition of hate crime as used by the FBI,” the agency said in a statement to The Washington Post. Some harassment didn’t rise to the level of intimidation, and some suspected bias incidents lacked evidence. In some cases, local investigations found no offense had occurred.

The discrepancy highlights the difficulties of tracking public levels of hate in the United States amid rising threats of white supremacy and a national reckoning over racial justice. It also points to sharp divides over what should constitute a hate crime, and whether incidents that are not considered criminal should still be catalogued.

“We need to be very careful to clearly define what we’re talking about,” Kim said. “Whether that’s a two out of 10 or a nine out of 10, in terms of danger to an individual, we can parse through that. But just the fact that so many people in our communities in 2021 and 2022 are experiencing that hate – it’s alarming.”

The FBI reported 8,263 hate crimes across the United States in 2020, the most in two decades, with 2021 numbers still being analyzed. But Democrats and civil rights advocates have long argued that the federal tally represents a major undercount because of lax reporting and inconsistent standards among local jurisdictions. Compounding the problem, they say: Victims of hate crimes tend to be among society’s most marginalized, and many are reticent about coming forward.

New Jersey officials and other proponents of carefully tracking all types of hate incidents say the data can foreshadow dangerous trends, even if many incidents do not result in arrests. Critics of expansive hate-crime legislation, in contrast, counter that broadening data collection risks government overreach and focusing law enforcement resources on behavior that is not against the law.

Examples of problematic behavior are everywhere: nooses displayed at construction sites across the country, online harassment of Asians throughout the coronavirus pandemic, antisemitic fliers left at homes in Miami Beach, racial slurs at a middle school basketball game in New Jersey. San Francisco police recorded 60 reports of hate crimes against people of Asian descent in 2021, compared with nine in 2020 and eight in 2019. Although some incidents are clearly criminal – like the recent hostage-taking of a rabbi and three congregants at a Texas synagogue – others do not meet that bar.

People attend a vigil for the eight people killed, including six women of Asian descent, in the Atlanta-area spa shootings in Garden Grove, Calif., on March 24, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Allison Zaucha

“The problem comes when some folks want to start prosecuting not just hate crimes, but what they consider to be hate speech,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a legal analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “People should be very suspect of any statistics based on claimed incidents that have not been investigated, and when we don’t know the credibility of the claims.”

Among the New Jersey bias incidents that the FBI did not include in the 2020 count were traffic disputes that led to accusations of racism, according to a review of New Jersey incident reports, and “Zoom bombing” incidents in which students disrupted online classes by spewing racist language.

And it’s not just the federal government that is having to delineate between hate crimes and bias incidents. Local prosecutors also have made difficult judgment calls.

Last summer, Ritu Chandra, an Indian American comedian in Berkeley Heights, N.J., posted a video on social media of a verbal altercation at a dog park in which another woman called her “ch—k b—-,” using a derogatory term for people of Chinese descent. Police charged the woman, Leslie A. Mugford, with harassment and bias intimidation. But the county prosecutor’s office downgraded the charges to disorderly conduct, leaving Chandra fuming.

“On paper, there are very academic efforts being made to get more numbers and get more reporting,” said Ehsan Chowdhry, Chandra’s lawyer. “But the fact remains that you can bean-count all you want, but without prosecution and punishment, who the hell cares?”

Municipal prosecutor Jon-Henry Barr, who ultimately handled Chandra’s case, said prosecutors are sympathetic to victims of bias offenses. But he added: “There’s a fine line between one’s free-speech rights involving hateful language and an actual crime. The reality is that calling someone the n-word or something similar is really horrible, offensive, disgusting, despicable conduct. But it’s not necessarily criminal. The question we have to ask ourselves is: Should it be?

To Grewal, who served as New Jersey’s top prosecutor from 2018 to 2021, cases such as Chandra’s are important to investigate even if they do not result in bias convictions. In 2019, Grewal told the state’s 36,000 police officers to more thoroughly report on bias incidents. He said his views were sharpened by his experience overseeing a domestic terrorism case as prosecutor in Bergen County, in which two men burned synagogues and firebombed a rabbi’s home. They were sentenced to 35 years in prison.

“It became apparent to me there were a lot of red flags early on – signs that this might be a pattern and trend in parts of the county – and we were not doing a good job reporting or tracking them,” said Grewal, who stepped down last July to become enforcement director at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Grewal’s memo sparked a rapid rise in bias reporting in New Jersey. By the end of 2019, New Jersey police had tallied 996 offenses, up from 545 a year earlier. Among them was a mass shooting at a kosher supermarket that killed four people, including a police detective – a crime officials said was motivated by antisemitism. In 2021, the number of bias incidents jumped to 1,825, according to state police data.

In analyzing the 2020 data, FBI officials in Washington flagged the spike. But they also determined that hundreds of the cases reported that year, mostly categorized as harassment and vandalism, did not qualify as hate crimes.

“There’s no way we could come to a national picture without imposing some standards on the data,” said an FBI official, noting that laws and statutes vary between states. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal methodology.

Ten New Jersey townships that reported between five and 10 bias incidents apiece had none included in the federal survey, a review of the data shows. Most of those incidents did not result in arrests or charges, New Jersey officials said.

In South Brunswick, for example, several of the 18 bias cases involved reports of racial harassment on social media, said Deputy Police Chief James Ryan of the South Brunswick Police Department. Another case involved a verbal dispute between a resident and a housing contractor that sparked an accusation of racial animus.

One of Sparta Township’s 10 cases involved a traffic dispute in which a man alleged that a woman told him she was scared because he was Black, said Lt. John Lamon of the Sparta Township Police Department. In another incident, someone in a car allegedly shouted a racial slur at a jogger.

“Everyone is a lot more sensitive about anything that is said or done,” Lamon said. “Obviously, if you make a derogatory remark, whether you make it in jest or you’re just a moron, then it’s almost like saying the magic word. If you call someone gay or Black, or you call an Indian person a name, it now falls under the bias category. In the past, years ago, it was just harassment.”

Last January, amid reports of increased anti-Asian hate in the country, President Joe Biden told the Justice Department to expand data collection beyond bias crimes to include “hate incidents.”

In the spring, Congress passed bipartisan legislation that boosts federal grant programs to help states improve reporting, and Attorney General Merrick Garland directed his department to bolster law enforcement training and community outreach, including new online resources to help the public report hate crimes.

But Democrats say the Justice Department has not yet made clear how it plans to bolster cooperation from local jurisdictions and whether the FBI or another division would be tasked with trying to gather more data.

“This is not something where the FBI or anyone else should just be passively analyzing and presenting that data,” Kim said. “We have to be more proactive.”

Civil rights groups are taking their own initiatives, seeking to document what appears to be a spike in animosity toward people of Asian descent after President Donald Trump and other Republicans blamed China for the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based advocacy organization, tallied more than 10,000 hate incidents targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from March 2020 through September 2021.

The data was collected via a self-reporting hotline. Verbal harassment constituted 62% of the incidents, with physical assault accounting for 16%.

By comparison, the FBI reported 279 hate crimes directly targeting Asians in the United States in 2020.

Cynthia Choi, a Stop AAPI Hate co-founder, said California state and municipal leaders have requested the group’s data to help develop legislation and policy proposals. Police agencies, however, have disputed their findings.

“We have a counternarrative of local law enforcement saying, ‘We don’t see those numbers,'” Choi said. “We are looking at more dynamic data. For us, it’s about understanding where the hot spots are.”

New Jersey state leaders said they have used their data to bolster youth education programs, enhance police training and improve outreach to vulnerable communities. Grewal said the attorney general’s office worked with Facebook and local prosecutors in Ocean County after seeing a rise in hate groups online, and with Rutgers University after reports of racial harassment during online classes.

A memorial for Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man who was fatally assaulted on his morning walk in San Francisco on Jan. 28, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Mark Leong

“We are committed to employing best practices, collecting the most comprehensive data, and deploying state-of-the-art tools to root out bias,” said Andrew Bruck, New Jersey’s acting attorney general.

But in some cases, the outcomes have left victims dissatisfied.

Chandra, the Berkeley Heights comedian, said the dog park confrontation began over Mugford’s anger that a dog belonging to Chandra’s friend had been off-leash a week earlier. In using an ethnic slur, Chandra said, “what she meant to say was: ‘I’m better than you. I matter more. You are insignificant because of your race.'” Mugford’s attorney declined a request for comment.

Chandra suggested that some White residents are uncomfortable that Berkeley Heights is slowly diversifying. Over the past two decades, the township’s White population has decreased from 87% to 77%, while the number of Asian residents has grown from 8% to 13%, according to census data.

The Union County prosecutor declined an interview request about the decision to drop the bias charge but issued a statement saying the “original charging decision was based upon incomplete information.”

Once the charge was downgraded, the case was transferred to the Berkeley Heights municipal prosecutor, Michael Mitzner. Chandra said he told her that a bias motive would be legally hard to prove because Mugford had used a derogatory term for people of Chinese descent, while Chandra is Indian American. Outraged, she petitioned city leaders to replace him, and they named Barr, a prosecutor in a neighboring township, to take over. Mitzner did not reply to messages left at his office.

In court, Chandra’s lawyer told the judge that his client had been “Karened,” a reference to the use of the name “Karen” on social media to describe entitled White women who threaten minorities.

Mugford pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and said she was embarrassed by her conduct. She agreed to a $250 fine, anger management classes and a no-contact order.

Chandra has continued to draw attention to her case, and she said she had a recent visit from New Jersey homeland security officials. In a statement, that office said it routinely reviews bias incidents for trends or patterns of potential extremist activity.

“People say, ‘Oh, what’s the big deal? Just let it go,'” Chandra said. “But it is a big deal. I’ve lived here 13 years. I do not deserve to be treated like that.”

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The Washington Post’s John D. Harden contributed to this report.

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