A digital ad in the Portland International Jetport encourages hate crime victims to come forward to local law enforcement. The agency is launching a nationwide campaign to stop the rise in hate crimes by increasing coordination with state and local police. Credit: Courtesy Federal Bureau of Investigations Boston Division

A new report recommended Maine law enforcement improve training in investigating and tracking hate crimes after researchers found a sharp decline in reported incidents between 2008 and 2017 and encountered a disjointed system for gathering data.

Reports of hate and bias incidents in Maine fell 49 percent between 2008 and 2017, researchers with the Maine Statistical Analysis Center at the University of Southern Maine found in a study published Sunday. From 2008 to 2012, Maine averaged 56 incidents every year, an average that fell to 33 during the next five years, a 42 percent drop, according to the report.

Reports also fell nationally during that period, but at a much lower rate. The findings do not suggest that hate crimes have simply diminished, but rather that Maine authorities may not have properly identified or reported many such incidents during that period, researchers say.

At the same time, Maine could stand to improve how it tracks information about incidents of bias and hate by improving its record-keeping systems. The authors began their study in 2019 with the goal of understanding the number of reported incidents and what happened in each of them, something not commonly tracked nationally. But they encountered gaps in information that made it difficult to understand what’s happening in Maine in a timely, comprehensive manner. 

“I had hoped that it would have been easier to pull together some of the outcome data and information to paint the picture of what was happening in Maine and we learned quickly that it was much more complicated than that,” said Hannah Brintlinger of the Maine Statistical Analysis Center, noting how long it took for her team to assemble their findings.

Brintlinger, as well as George Shaler of the Maine Statistical Analysis Center and Jack McDevitt, the Director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University and a leading national expert on hate crimes, worked on the study. More than that 65 law enforcement agencies, all eight district attorney’s offices and the attorney general’s office assisted.

In the years since the study period, as the country reeled from a pandemic that inspired incidents of anti-Asian bias and reckoned with systemic racial injustice following the police murder of George Floyd, federal data suggest hate crimes are ticking back up nationally and in Maine. 

In 2020, the FBI recorded more than 7,750 reported hate crimes in the US, its highest in 12 years, the majority related to racial bias, according to NPR. They quadrupled in Maine that year, when law enforcement here tracked 83 incidents.

In Maine, police are required to document if a crime could be motivated by bias and refer that to the attorney general’s office, which then decides if there is evidence to file a complaint under the Maine Civil Rights Act. Local district attorneys can also bring charges. 

To conduct the study, the researchers obtained data on all hate crimes reported annually by local police to the FBI during the study period. Half of reports were based on race, ethnicity or ancestry, most frequently anti-Black or anti-African American bias, at 38 percent, the study found. 

Only 28 percent of reported incidents resulted in arrest, the researchers found. Sixty-six percent did not, and the remaining 6 percent could not be identified in law enforcement records. 

Of the incidents reported, local district attorneys — who can push for enhanced sentences in crimes motivated by bias, as well as charge offenders with the crime of interfering with an individual’s civil and constitutional rights — accepted 26 percent of cases for prosecution. They most often pursued charges in assault cases, though intimidation was the most frequently reported offense type, at 44 percent of all incidents.

The attorney general’s office can also file civil orders under the Maine Civil Rights Act to keep perpetrators from contacting victims using a lower standard of proof than prosecutors, who must prove crimes beyond a reasonable doubt. 

That office filed such orders in six percent of cases that local police also reported to the FBI, the study found, nearly three-quarters of which were for race-based episodes. In 32 percent of cases, the authorities didn’t file an order because they didn’t have evidence, couldn’t identify a suspect, the victim didn’t want to cooperate or the incident wasn’t covered by the act. 

But for nearly two-thirds of incidents that local police reported to the FBI, the attorney general’s office couldn’t locate that report in its own records. 

“The hard numbers are important, but also, the fact that we’re not able to locate or identify a large portion of the cases does limit those hard numbers,” Brintlinger said.

Generally speaking, though, it’s difficult for researchers to understand how often hate crimes occur because they often go unreported to police, national surveys show. In Maine, for instance, two of the 10 largest cities in Maine did not report any hate or bias crimes to the FBI during the study period, according to the report. 

The authors recommended that local law enforcement update basic training curriculum for identifying, investigating and reporting hate and bias crimes as well as requiring refresher training from veteran officers. That training should include updates on recent trends in hate crimes.

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.