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Hate Crimes in California
Law Enforcement Has Not Adequately Identified, Reported, or Responded to Hate Crimes

Report Number: 2017-131



Our review concerning the implementation of hate crime law in California revealed the following:

Results in Brief

Reported hate crimes in the State increased by more than 20 percent from 2014 to 2016, from 758 to 931. Nonetheless, law enforcement has not taken adequate action to identify, report, and respond to these crimes. State law defines hate crimes as criminal acts committed, in whole or in part, based on certain actual or perceived characteristics of the victim, referred to as protected characteristics. These protected characteristics are disability, gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and association with a person or group with one or more of those actual or perceived characteristics. According to the Office of the Attorney General, hate crimes are among the most dehumanizing of crimes because the perpetrators view their victims as lacking full human worth. In addition, hate crimes affect the entire groups to which the victims belong.

Of the four law enforcement agencies we reviewed, three—the Los Angeles Police Department (LA Police), the San Francisco State University Police Department (SFSU Police), and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (Orange County Sheriff)—failed to properly identify some hate crimes in the cases we reviewed. Our testing found that LA Police and SFSU Police misidentified some hate crimes as hate incidents. Hate incident is a term law enforcement agencies use to describe a situation that involves an element of hate, such as hate speech, but that does not include an underlying crime, such as an assault. From 2014 through 2016, LA Police incorrectly identified three of the 15 hate incident cases we reviewed—or 20 percent—as hate incidents rather than hate crimes. Similarly, from 2007 through 2016, SFSU Police failed to properly identify eight of the 15 hate incident cases we reviewed—or 53 percent—as hate crimes.1 Our review of these 11 hate incidents at LA Police and SFSU Police found that in addition to an element of hate, an offense such as breaches of the peace or assault occurred, thus elevating these to hate crimes. Further, when we reviewed 29 crimes commonly associated with hate crimes, such as assaults, at the Orange County Sheriff, we found that it failed to identify a hate crime that occurred in one of its detention facilities. Because they failed to correctly identify these hate crimes, LA Police, SFSU Police, and the Orange County Sheriff did not report them as such to DOJ, thereby leading DOJ to underreport to the federal government and the public the number of hate crimes in California.

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. For example, three of the four law enforcement agencies we reviewed did not have adequate policies and methods in place to identify hate crimes. SFSU Police’s hate crime policy is outdated and does not adequately reflect the definition of a hate crime under state law. In addition, the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department (Stanislaus County Sheriff) and the Orange County Sheriff do not use a supplemental hate crime report form that allows patrol officers to more easily identify different elements of a hate crime, such as the type of bias (for example, bias toward race, disability, or sexual orientation) and bias indicators (for example, hate speech, certain types of property damage, or symbols). According to the Office of the District Attorney of Orange County, information included in these reports, such as victim and suspect statements about what suspects said regarding certain protected characteristics, can be crucial when prosecuting hate crime cases. Until these three law enforcement agencies implement methods and policies to better identify hate crimes, the potential to misidentify these crimes remains high.

We also found that due to the difficulty of prosecuting hate crimes, prosecutors are successful in convicting defendants of hate crimes at only about half the rate at which they convict defendants for all felonies in the State. According to DOJ’s annual survey of County District Attorneys’ Offices, California prosecutors convicted 790 defendants of hate crimes during the period from 2007 through 2016. For an additional 748 cases that law enforcement agencies had initially referred to them as hate crimes, prosecutors ultimately convicted the defendants of crimes other than hate crimes, such as assaults. For the decade we reviewed, the conviction rates for hate crimes ranged from 40 percent to 51 percent per year. In comparison, during that same period, prosecutors statewide secured an 84 percent conviction rate for 2.4 million completed prosecutions for felonies.

Successful prosecutions of hate crimes are often hampered either by a lack of suspects or by the high standard of proof required. According to DOJ’s hate crime data, one of the largest limiting factors for hate crime prosecution is a lack of identifiable suspects. Although law enforcement agencies in California reported more than 10,400 hate crimes from 2007 through 2016, more than 3,000 of those crimes lacked suspects to prosecute. Our review of cases at district attorney’s offices also found that successfully prosecuting hate crimes is often difficult because the cases lack sufficient evidence to meet the high standard of evidence required to prove motive and secure a conviction on a hate crime charge. Our review of 100 hate crime cases in four jurisdictions found that prosecutors often rejected the cases referred by law enforcement agencies because the prosecutors believed there was not sufficient evidence to obtain hate crime convictions. In fact, when we reviewed 51 hate crime referrals that prosecutors rejected, we found that the prosecutors rejected 37 due to a lack of evidence sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a hate crime had occurred. These numbers suggest that a lack of suspects and the insufficiency of evidence provided by law enforcement were key factors that have limited prosecutions of hate crimes.

We also identified underreporting of hate crimes by law enforcement agencies. DOJ requires law enforcement agencies, such as the California Highway Patrol, sheriff’s departments, police departments, and certain school district and college police departments, to submit information on all hate crimes occurring in their jurisdictions on a monthly basis. DOJ then transmits these data to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and creates an annual report for the Legislature and the public. However, we found that law enforcement agencies failed to report some hate crimes to DOJ. Specifically, the four law enforcement agencies we reviewed failed to report 97 hate crimes, or about 14 percent of all hate crimes they identified, to DOJ. LA Police was responsible for the vast majority of these errors. Correct reporting to DOJ is essential to raising awareness about the occurrence of bias‑motivated offenses nationwide and to understanding the nature and magnitude of hate crimes in the State.

Although DOJ guidance requires law enforcement agencies to submit hate crime information on a monthly basis, it has made no recent effort to ensure that all law enforcement agencies comply with this requirement. When we asked DOJ to provide us with a list of agencies that it requires to report information to its hate crimes database, we found that it did not maintain a complete or accurate listing of all law enforcement agencies in the State. Specifically, a number of law enforcement agencies were not present on the list, and much of the contact information on the list was incorrect. Moreover, DOJ does not verify that all law enforcement agencies it requires to report do so, nor does it review the data that the agencies submit to ensure its accuracy. DOJ’s lack of proactive guidance and oversight of law enforcement agencies is contributing to the underreporting of hate crime information that it provides to the public, the Legislature, and the FBI.

In addition, law enforcement agencies need to improve their response to hate crimes by providing outreach that encourages individuals to report hate crimes. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that from 2011 through 2015, about 54 percent of hate crimes were not reported to law enforcement agencies. According to a bureau chief of the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), outreach by law enforcement agencies can encourage members of vulnerable communities to come forward if they witness or are the victims of hate crimes. However, two of the four law enforcement agencies we reviewed could not provide documentation of community outreach efforts that specifically addressed hate crimes. Although all four law enforcement agencies engaged with the public by discussing general public safety issues, only the Orange County Sheriff and LA Police provided community outreach activities that related specifically to hate crime issues. In contrast, SFSU Police and Stanislaus County Sheriff noted that agency staff might address hate crimes at outreach events but that hate crimes were not the events’ primary focus. Moreover, when we surveyed 245 law enforcement agencies throughout the State, over 30 percent of the law enforcement agencies who responded to our survey stated that they 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.

DOJ is uniquely positioned to provide leadership for law enforcement’s response to the growing number of hate crimes in California because of its statutory responsibilities to collect, analyze, and report on hate crimes. Our survey of law enforcement agencies found that they appear receptive to DOJ providing additional training, outreach materials, and other types of assistance. However, to use its resources in this manner, DOJ may need a clear statutory mandate. Further, to provide law enforcement agencies with additional guidance, DOJ will need to revise the way it collects hate crime data. For example, DOJ could use its hate crime data to provide targeted outreach and assistance to individual law enforcement agencies that may be experiencing increases in hate crimes. However, DOJ’s current hate crime reporting process does not capture the geographic location where each hate crime occurred; rather, it identifies only which law enforcement agency reported the hate crime. Capturing data like the geographic locations of crimes is critical to DOJ’s ability to provide guidance to law enforcement agencies and provide accurate information to the Legislature and the public.

Selected Recommendations


To address the increase in hate crimes reported in California, the Legislature should require DOJ to do the following:


To ensure that it receives complete and accurate data, DOJ should, by May 2019, maintain a list of law enforcement agencies that it updates annually, obtain hate crime data from all law enforcement agencies, and conduct periodic reviews of law enforcement agencies to ensure that the data they report are accurate. It should also seek the resources to implement these efforts, if necessary.

To ensure that law enforcement agencies effectively engage with communities regarding hate crimes, DOJ should provide guidance and best practices for law enforcement agencies to follow when conducting outreach to vulnerable communities within their jurisdictions. It should seek the resources to implement these efforts, if necessary.

Law Enforcement Agencies

To ensure that they accurately identify and report hate crimes, SFSU Police and LA Police should update their hate crime policies and procedures, and the Orange County Sheriff and Stanislaus County Sheriff should implement supplemental hate crime reports and require officers to use them.

To ensure accurate and complete reporting, LA Police and SFSU Police should provide sufficient guidance and oversight to their officers and staff so that they report all hate crimes to DOJ.

Agency Comments

DOJ, SFSU Police, and Orange County Sheriff all agreed with our recommendations. LA Police disagreed with some of our findings and asserted that it has already implemented policies and procedures to address our recommendations. Further, POST did not specifically address our recommendations in its response but offered clarifying comments. Finally, the Stanislaus County Sheriff did not submit a response to our report. Here we provide our perspective on POST’s and LA Police’s responses to our report.


1 Because of the relatively few hate incident cases at SFSU Police, we tested cases from 2007 through 2016.
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