Last November, less than one week after the presidential election, Drew Galloway discovered graffiti scrawled across his car door when he returned home from an evening jog with his husband.

“It’s over, f—–s,” it read.

Galloway called the San Antonio Police Department about the anti-gay slur written on his car, prompting the department to send an officer to conduct a police report. The officer informed him that the crime would not be recorded as a hate crime, Galloway said, since police were not aware of any suspect.

“It was important to me and my family to have it listed as a hate crime because it’s something they put on our vehicle to intimidate us, either to get us to move out of the neighborhood or not do the work that I do,” Galloway said.

As executive director of the local nonprofit MOVE San Antonio, Galloway develops voter engagement and policy-making on issues such as LGBTQIA equality, environmental justice, and labor and union rights.

It wasn’t until he attended a public LGBTQIA forum about hate crimes shortly after, Galloway said, that SAPD’s LGBT liaison, Assistant Chief James Flavin, took notice of his concern. Flavin assured Galloway the crime would be documented as a hate crime.

“My son didn’t really know what that word meant,” Galloway said. “It opened up this whole conversation. We’re a very close-knit, loving family … We had to have a conversation about why somebody would do this to our car.”

MOVE San Antonio Executive Director Drew Galloway holds a press conference outside the entrance to the SAISD board room.
MOVE San Antonio Executive Director Drew Galloway introduces speakers at a press conference at the SAISD administrative building fighting on behalf of LGBTQIA student rights. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

SAPD is among the Top 100 U.S. law enforcement agencies recently recognized for reporting an unusually small number of hate crimes for a jurisdiction of its size. It falls third after the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the Houston Police Department, and ranks above the Dallas Police Department according to a study by ProPublica using the FBI’s 2016 Uniform Crime Reports.

Hate crimes increased nationwide in 2016, FBI statistics show, yet there are several barriers to accurately reporting them. Lack of trust between local law enforcement and the citizens they serve, poor police training, challenges proving motivational bias in prosecution, and inaccuracies in data-sharing between government agencies are all factors that may contribute to the underreporting of hate crimes, regional and national experts say.

Some communities in San Antonio do not feel as capable reaching out to law enforcement as Galloway did.

Sarwat Husain, president of the San Antonio chapter of the Council On American-Islamic Relations, explained that some members of the local Muslim community have opted not to report hate crimes to the police for fear of information about those crimes becoming public.

“If [the information] goes to the police it becomes public, and they [Muslim community members] do not want this to become public,” Husain said. “It has happened in the past that [Muslim community members] are fired from their jobs or bullied at school. The families are very afraid.”

ProPublica‘s report found SAPD to be the third largest department in the country reporting fewer than one hate crime for every 100,000 people – about the population of San Angelo – for a total of nine hate crimes in 2016.

“I can’t believe that,” Husain said. “There were much more than that. I’m only dealing with the Muslims … And there are hate crimes committed against other people also.”

The San Antonio chapter of the Council On American-Islamic Relations received about 21 hate crime incident reports in 2017, according to Husain.

SAPD spokeswoman Sgt. Michelle Ramos said the low number of reported hate crimes given the city’s size could be explained by tolerance bred from San Antonio’s diverse community. “Because we are so culturally diverse, I think that’s why we don’t have those problems,” she said.

The number of hate crimes SAPD reported in 2016 is nearly 100 times less than the average rate of hate crimes occurring in the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey. That survey includes hate crime incidents confirmed by police as bias-motivated, as well as incidents perceived by victims to be bias-motivated because the offender used hate language or left behind hate symbols, as in Galloway’s case.

Hate crimes in Texas are most often motivated by racial, ethnic, or ancestry bias, and occur in a residence or the victim’s home, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s 2016 hate crime statistics. Most hate crimes that year targeted individuals (89.8 percent), as opposed to businesses (7.5 percent) or religious organizations (2.7 percent). Nearly 50 percent of hate crime offenders were white, while 22.4 percent were black.

As in Texas, the largest portion of hate crimes in San Antonio are motivated by race. Hate crimes based on bias against the victim’s sexual orientation have been on the steady decline since 2013, though hate crimes of religious bias spiked in 2015 – likely the result of a series of anti-semitic vandalism that occurred in San Antonio that year.

One possible explanation for the low number of hate crimes reported in Texas and San Antonio compared to other regions is the complex process by which Texas law enforcement and government agencies exchange data about hate crimes.

In Texas, hate crimes are ultimately reported to three different agencies. The State mandates that local law enforcement agencies report hate crime incidents to the Texas Governor and Legislature annually, according to Section 411.046 of the Government Code. Convicting courts must also report cases of hate crimes to the Texas Judicial Council, but not the federal government.

In San Antonio, local law enforcement officers make the first determination of whether a hate crime occurred when they arrive on the scene by checking a box on a police form indicating that a crime was motivated by bias. An investigative unit follows up, determines whether it was a hate crime, and reports it to the records office, which submits hate crime statistics to the Department of Public Safety. DPS finally relays this information to the FBI as a Uniform Crime Report.

“I don’t get the sense that local agencies are having problems communicating with the Department of Public Safety,” said Dena Marks, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League in the Southwest Region.

Marks suggested that communication breakdowns happen between state agencies and the federal government, citing an example in which the FBI reported that the Houston Police Department filed zero hate crimes one year, after the Texas Department of Public Safety missed the deadline to report.

“Those things can happen, things can fall through the cracks,” she said.

Even if a suspected hate crime is successfully brought to the Bexar County District Attorney’s office, it is difficult to convict a defendant. Citing Texas’ legal definition of a hate crime, District Attorney Nico LaHood suggested that defendants are rarely convicted for hate crimes due to lacking evidence to support an indictment.

“It could be that people are not expressing intent behind their behavior,” he said. “[This] makes it difficult to prove a hate crime because you have to really get into someone’s thoughts.”

Prosecutors are burdened with proving not only intent, but also a bias motivation for a jury to convict defendants of committing a hate crime. “It’s more difficult to prove, but it’s not impossible,” LaHood said.

Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood.
Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Although the Hate Crime Statistics Act, passed in 1990, requires that the federal government collect data about hate crimes, reporting hate crimes to the FBI is voluntary for local law enforcement agencies. Nearly 16,000 of the estimated 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. participated in the program in 2016. Of these, 11.6 percent of participating agencies reported a total of 6,121 incidents.

The remaining 88.4 percent did not report a single hate crime in their jurisdiction.

“We know in this day and age, data drives policy,” said Becky Monroe, director of the Stop Hate Project at the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, based in Washington, D.C. “We need to improve the response to hate crimes across the board.”

Determining motivational bias on the scene can be difficult for officers weighing multiple definitions of a hate crime. The definition varies by state, sometimes disagreeing with the federal definition that includes bias against race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, and gender identity.

Article 42.014 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure does not include gender identity as part of its definition.

SAPD officers are trained to identify bias based on both federal and state definitions. Sworn SAPD officers receive eight hours of “Cultural Diversity” training during each 48-month training cycle. Cadets receive 14-16 hours of “Multiculturalism and Human Relations” training in compliance with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, according to Ramos.

But classroom hours alone may not be sufficient in training police officers on how to handle hate crimes.

“Effective training includes understanding of the law [state, local, federal], investigative techniques, and engagement with community,” explained Monroe, who has experience working with law enforcement to respond more effectively to hate crimes.

Monroe highlighted successful examples in cities such as Seattle and Knoxville, Tennessee, that started dedicated bias crimes units or dedicated community liaison units as a way to build trust between local law enforcement and the communities they serve. SAPD appointed its first LGBT Liaison, Capt. Larry Birney, in 2006

Some cities like Tuscon, Arizona, and Denver also encourage citizens to report hate crimes through hate crime hotlines or online forms.

All of these initiatives have something in common: they aim to better understand the unique cultural, religious, ethnic, and racial composition of a community.

“Part of the way [police] serve their community is by knowing who they are,” Monroe said.

Husain agrees. “I just want the law enforcement and especially [Nico LaHood] to come and talk to us. We are your friends, we are not your enemies,” she said. “We have to let them know we are among them, we are not any different from them.

“It will take some time. Perhaps it will take a generation,” she said.

To date, no suspect has been found in the case involving Galloway’s car.

“I felt anger at the situation, and that is what compelled me to speak out and to reach out to my local politicians and up the chain of SAPD – but I also felt significant fear for our children,” he said.

“It wasn’t like we had an equal rights sticker on the back of our car. They had to watch us, to see us, and to know that we were a gay family.”

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Emily Royall

Emily Royall is the Rivard Report's former data director.