Trraffic along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington streaks past the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters building, Nov. 7, 2017. The FBI says hate crimes reports were up about 17 percent in 2017, marking a rise for the third year in a row. An annual report released Tuesday shows there were more than 7,100 reported hate crimes last year. There were increases in attacks motivated by racial bias, religious bias and because of a victim’s sexual orientation. The report shows there was a nearly 23 percent increase in religion-based hate crimes. There was a 37 percent spike in anti-Jewish hate crimes. Credit: J. David Ake | AP

The number of reported hate crimes in the United States increased about 17 percent in 2017, compared with 2016, according to new FBI statistics released Tuesday. But that’s not necessarily the bad news.

Rather, the statistics reveal how much the country doesn’t know about crimes motivated by prejudice, but should. Not having a complete, trusted way of understanding the extent of hate crimes shows a lack of commitment to keeping protected groups safe.

First, there’s a big difference between how many hate crimes actually happen versus how many are reported to local authorities. Many people don’t tell police about violence or property damage that was motivated by bias against their race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation or religion.

Researchers know this because they conduct national surveys to collect more holistic crime data than what police hear about. They find that just 46 percent of hate crimes are reported to police, which is similar to the reporting rate for violent victimizations in general, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Minorities, especially recent immigrants, may fear the police or may not think anything will be done. For instance, a Pew Research Center survey found last year that 6 percent of Muslims said they had been physically threatened or attacked for being Muslim, representing a far larger number of incidents than were ultimately reported to the FBI.

Comparatively, American Jews, who are more likely to trust the police, more frequently tell them about being harmed on the basis of their religion. Of the religiously motivated hate crimes tabulated by the FBI in 2017, about 63 percent targeted Jews.

Second, there’s a discrepancy between crimes local police agencies hear about and what those agencies report to the FBI, which tallies the national hate crime totals each year. About 1,000 additional law enforcement agencies sent in their hate crime data to the FBI in 2017. It is good to have more involvement, but it undoubtedly skewed the overall numbers.

The process of gathering the numbers in general is deeply flawed, as it is voluntary for police departments across the country to send in their data, and not all police departments do. For instance, just one police agency in Mississippi — a state with a history of racial struggle — told the FBI about a single hate crime in 2017.

For comparison, 10 agencies in Maine, a state with less than half the population of Mississippi, reported 32 incidents in 2017. The FBI says 132 police agencies in Maine participate in the data collection. That’s out of the 141 police departments listed by the Maine Chiefs of Police Association’s website.

Plus, it’s an open question of what happens to hate crime cases that are reported to police since the FBI’s data set doesn’t include information about how many reports resulted in arrests or charges. Investigators don’t always pursue bias-based crimes as such; they may be misclassified, passed over altogether or thought to be too difficult to prove. Officers frequently don’t receive training on how to handle the cases.

It’s also not clear whether victims are simply reporting more hate crimes, which would be a positive development.

Previous years, which have been studied more, have seen this trend. There was no statistical change in the rate of violent hate crime victimization between 2004 and 2015, but between 2012 and 2015 the rate of reported violent hate crime went up slightly, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

So, did the increase in hate crime reports — 7,175 in 2017, compared to 6,121 in 2016 — represent an actual increase in the crime or just an increase in the number of people or police departments reporting it? It’s not really possible to know right now, and that fact is troubling.

As one former deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s civil rights division told ProPublica, “The current statistics are a complete and utter joke.”

Underreporting, or uneven reporting, of hate crimes leads to fewer people being held responsible and can create an inaccurate picture of the scope of hate against certain groups. It’s easier for towns and cities to ignore hate crimes when they are invisible or the extent of them is unclear. This, in turn, can lead victims feeling as though no one cares, further perpetuating the feedback loop of secrecy and discrimination.