Courts & Corrections

VTDigger joins ProPublica in ‘Documenting Hate’ project

Glover graffiti
Racist graffiti was discovered at West Glover’s Andersonville Farm. Photo courtesy of Jasper Hill Farm

Three days after discovering racist and Nazi graffiti at one of its facilities in August, Jasper Hill Farms posted a photo on its social media accounts that quickly went viral.

After first offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, the cheese company set up an online fundraiser that quickly brought enough pledges to raise the amount to $5,000. Donors added messages of support: “There is no room here for such darkness,” one wrote.

Have you experienced or witnessed a hate crime? Help us track incidents across Vermont by sharing your story with the Documenting Hate project.

However, several other incidents apparently motivated by racial, religious or other bias have been reported in Vermont in the past year or more, including a rash of vandalism in Craftsbury.

A synagogue in Middlebury reported being vandalized with swastikas one week after the 2016 presidential election. Swastika graffiti was discovered at Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library earlier this year. The chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party, who is Muslim, received a string of threatening emails that led prosecutors to press a hate crime charge.

Whether these incidents fit into a broader pattern of incidents motivated by hate or bias is less clear. Many such incidents go unreported — more than half, according to one Department of Justice report — and methods for tracking incidents that are reported vary between law enforcement agencies.

In Vermont, some local agencies are less thorough than others in reporting numbers of suspected bias-related incidents, says the head of the state center that compiles such data. And the lag time for reporting means a pattern may not be evident until more than a year later.

As the national news organization ProPublica notes in its Documenting Hate project, “The FBI is required by law to collect data about hate crimes, but local jurisdictions aren’t required to report incidents up to the federal government. As a predictable consequence, the FBI’s data is incomplete.”

Jeffrey Wallin, director of the Vermont Crime Information Center, or VCIC, said Vermont does share its crime data with the FBI. Any incident can be reported with a “bias motivation indicator,” which means the agency investigating the incident determined that it was motivated by prejudice based on the victim’s race, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, physical ability or ethnicity.

The VCIC requests that law enforcement agencies across Vermont submit data every month about incidents that occurred in their jurisdictions, Wallin said. The center then compiles that data and sends it to federal authorities.

Wallin said that although the VCIC has the most comprehensive statistics on bias incidents in the state, this repository “does see some variances” in how comprehensive local law enforcement agencies are with their reporting. While most agencies are “very conscientious,” he said, “at the end of the day, it’s a voluntary program.”

Public access to that data is also limited. “We have to wait until the end of the year to compile certain stats,” including bias incident counts, Wallin said. The most recent available data is from 2015. Wallin said the data for 2016, which his division is currently waiting on, is “frustratingly late.”

Ingrid Jonas
Maj. Ingrid Jonas of the Vermont State Police. Photo courtesy of VSP
Maj. Ingrid Jonas, of the Vermont State Police, who was that force’s first director of fair and impartial policing, said her department also tracks bias incidents, which are passed on to federal authorities through the VCIC’s monthly reports.

So far in 2017, the Vermont State Police recorded only two incidents with a bias motive: one assault believed to be motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation, and one phone harassment case also related to sexual orientation.

Jonas told VTDigger she was surprised that only two cases came up in her search. She said her department is “talking about this a lot more lately, unfortunately.”

“I feel like I’m hearing more community members being impacted by intolerance or hate. That has a public safety impact,” she said. “It’s just deeply troubling, and we want to do everything we can to resolve people’s concerns.”

Jonas added that the Vermont State Police has not held a formal training for its officers on reporting bias incidents, which she believes would help improve the accuracy of the department’s statistics.

“What lens are we looking through? Are we seeing every angle?” she asked. “We would certainly benefit from continuing to raise our awareness.”

To better track bias incidents in Vermont and across the country, VTDigger is partnering with ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project. If you’ve experienced or witnessed a hate crime, use this secure online form to share your story. The information you provide will be shared only with the organizations that are part of this national initiative.

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Mike Dougherty

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