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Lack of trust in law enforcement hinders reporting of LGBTQ crimes

Violent crimes and other hate incidents targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans consistently are unreported and often not prosecuted.

Austin Muckelroy (he/him) celebrates at Houston Pride Parade on June 23, 2018.
Austin Muckelroy (he/him) celebrates at Houston Pride Parade on June 23, 2018.Read moreShelby Knowles / News21

SAN FRANCISCO — Violent crimes and other hate incidents against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans are consistently not reported and prosecuted because of chronic distrust between the LGBTQ community and police.

Nearly 300,000 crimes may have been committed against people across the United States because of their sexual orientation from 2012 to 2016, according to a News21 analysis of data from the federal National Crime Victimization Survey, which tens of thousands of American households fill out each year.

"There are people that are hurting right now who don't trust the police and also don't feel comfortable coming forward or speaking up," said Sheryl Evans Davis, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. "Until we have an increase of people reporting things, then we could be doing [more]. We're still not really doing enough for them."

U.S. Department of Justice documents for the relatively few federally prosecuted hate crime cases since 2009 tell stories of beatings, robberies, slurs, profanities and fatalities targeting LGBTQ individuals.

Steven Nelson, a 49-year-old gay man, died in an Idaho hospital hours after being lured into the woods by an online ad for a sexual encounter in April 2016. His attacker, Kelly Schneider, repeatedly kicked him with steel-toed boots while yelling homophobic slurs, then stripped and robbed him.

David Beltier and his boyfriend, Jeremy Mark, were walking their pink-dyed poodle, Beauty, in Hillsboro, Ore., when George Mason got out of his car and beat Beltier with a metal tool while yelling gay slurs in March 2013.

Three gay men were walking through a Seattle neighborhood in January 2015 when Troy Burns began to tail them, shouting homophobic slurs and eventually threatening them with a knife and attempting to stab one of them.

Experts and such advocates as Seth Brysk, the central Pacific regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, believe many similar crimes are not reported to law enforcement, much less recorded by the FBI or prosecuted. Only 1,776 of the 15,254 police departments participating in the FBI's crime tracking program reported hate crimes in their jurisdiction in 2016, at a time when other measures indicate a sharp rise in bias-motivated crimes.

"We know that the reporting of hate crimes is vastly underreported," Brysk said. "So it's important for law enforcement to do everything possible in their power to make it … easy as possible for people to feel comfortable and willing to go and report these crimes. And that they then are faithful to their own position and reporting up the chain."

From 2012 to 2016, about 20 percent of hate incidents reported to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program were sexual-orientation bias crimes. Although sexual orientation isn't limited to lesbians, gays and bisexual people, sexual minorities comprised the majority of the victims.

"The numbers look big, but I think they're even bigger if you really did have everybody who has experienced any hate crimes come forward when they should," said Angelic Setchell, the anti-violence program specialist with the Montrose Center in Houston, a LGBTQ social services organization.

Setchell said she encourages hate crime victims she works with in Houston to report their experiences to the police, but some are reluctant because they haven't revealed their sexual orientation to family or employers. Others fear being targeted again if they go after their attackers in court.

The more frequently someone is subjected to bias-motivated hostility, the less likely he or she may be to report the behavior to the authorities, said Gregory Herek, an anti-LGBTQ hate crime expert who retired from University of California, Davis.

"If a person has insults yelled at them several times a day, the idea that you're going to try to deal with each of those by going to the police or by reporting something is just not worth it for the individual," he said.

Sneh Rao, director of policy for the policy and social justice division for the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, said anti-LGBTQ hate-crime numbers would look much larger if the LGBTQ community was more trusting of law enforcement.

"What success might actually look like is a spike in the reported numbers of hate crimes, and that would tell me that people are actually starting to trust our police," Rao said.

When Bobby Brooks was elected Texas A&M University's first openly gay student body president in March 2017, he was targeted with threats of bodily harm and homophobic slurs, and tried to report it to the local police.

The threats on Facebook and Twitter came after then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry wrote an editorial column in the Houston Chronicle questioning Brooks' election. Initially, Perry said, he considered Brooks' election "a testament to the Aggie character." But after discovering Brooks' opponent had been disqualified for failing to disclose campaign expenses, Perry questioned whether A&M's quest for "diversity" was behind the election.

"Rick Perry's letter was the single greatest catalyst for me receiving death threats," Brooks told News21. Perry "gave a lot of permission to allow hateful speech. He was able to write this letter and wash his hands of it because he's Rick Perry."

Three weeks after results became official, Brooks was at a convenience store in Longview, Texas, when he noticed glares and whispers from a group of people he recognized as A&M students. He left the store and his traveling companion soon followed him, crying. She told him after he walked out, the students used homophobic slurs and recorded him in Snapchat videos while saying, "I'm going to f— you up."

Brooks turned to a university adviser, who encouraged him to report the incident. When he contacted the Longview police, he said the responding officer told him, "Well, that doesn't sound like a problem to me. It sounds like those are just some words."

"The police wouldn't even take a report, wouldn't even take it seriously," Brooks said. "They laughed me off the phone. … Nobody let me do anything about it, and it's so frustrating when there's a system designed that won't recognize your struggles, and then people will only base their understanding of discrimination based off of what that system perceives as discrimination."

Herek, from UC Davis, said the responding officer and the quality of his or her LGBTQ cultural-competency training can have a direct effect on whether a bias crime is properly recorded. The officer must know which questions to ask the victim, understand how to identify a potential hate crime and take the additional steps to classify the incident in the department's system, he said. Then, the department must share this information with the FBI to facilitate accurate tracking.

"There are all these things that can go wrong," Herek said.

News21 reporters Abby Bitterman, Penelope Blackwell, Renata Cló, Shelby Knowles, Lenny Martinez Dominguez, Emmanuel Morgan, Justin Parham, and Jasmine Putney contributed to this article.

This report is part of the "Hate in America" project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. For the complete project, visit