Hate Crime—Overview

Investigating hate crime is the number one priority of our Civil Rights Program. Why? Not only because hate crime has a devastating impact on families and communities, but also because groups that preach hatred and intolerance plant the seeds of terrorism here in our country.

Defining a Hate Crime
Photograph of firefighter on smoking roof.A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation." Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.

FBI Jurisdiction
A hate crime is not a distinct federal offense. However, the federal government can and does investigate and prosecute crimes of bias as civil rights violations, which do fall under its jurisdiction. These efforts serve as a backstop for state and local authorities, which handle the vast majority of hate crime cases. A 1994 federal law also increased penalties for offenses proven to be hate crimes.

In 2009, the passage of a new law—the first significant expansion of federal criminal civil rights law since the mid-1990s—gave the federal government the authority to prosecute violent hate crimes, including violence and attempted violence directed at the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, to the fullest extent of its jurisdiction. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act also provides funding and technical assistance to state, local, and tribal jurisdictions to help them to more effectively investigate, prosecute, and prevent hate crimes.

The FBI’s Role
As part of its responsibility to uphold the civil rights of the American people, the FBI takes a number of steps to combat the problem of hate crimes:

  • Investigative Activities: The FBI is the sole investigative force for criminal violations of federal civil rights statutes. In 2009, we initiated 174 hate crime investigations, many jointly with our state and local law enforcement partners.
  • Cold Case Initiative:  In 2007, we announced this renewed focus on racially-motivated killings from the civil rights era, involving FBI agents from more than a dozen field offices who—with the assistance of our law enforcement partners, community leaders, and the media—identified cases and then began tracking down witnesses and locating family members, pursuing leads, reviewing law enforcement records and other documents, and seeking closure for family members.
  • Law Enforcement Support: The FBI works closely with state/local authorities on investigations, even when federal charges are not brought. FBI resources, forensic expertise, and experience in identification and proof of hate-based motivations often provide an invaluable complement to local law enforcement. Many cases are also prosecuted under state statutes such as murder, arson, or more recent local ethnic intimidation laws. Once the state prosecution begins, the Department of Justice monitors the proceedings in order to ensure that the federal interest is vindicated and the law is applied equally among the 95 U.S. Judicial Districts.
  • The FBI forwards completed reports to U.S. Attorneys and the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, which decide whether a federal prosecution is warranted. They may move forward, for example, if local authorities are unwilling or unable to prosecute a crime of bias.
  • Hate crimes directed at the U.S. government or the American population may be investigated as acts of domestic terrorism. Incidents involving hate groups are also investigated as domestic terrorism (the FBI's Civil Rights Program cannot investigate groups, only individuals).

Photograph of burned car.The FBI investigated what are now called hate crimes as far back as the 1920s. Our role increased following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Before then, the federal government took the position that protection of civil rights was a local function, not a federal one. However, the murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in June 1964 provided the impetus for a visible and sustained federal effort to protect and foster civil rights for African Americans. MIBURN, as the case was called (it stood for Mississippi Burning), became the largest federal investigation ever conducted in Mississippi. On October 20, 1967, seven men were convicted of conspiring to violate the constitutional rights of the slain civil rights workers. All seven were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to ten years.

  • Hate Crimes Working Groups (HCWGs):  The FBI co-chairs a subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Hate Crimes Working Group that was responsible for developing a national model hate crimes curriculum for state and local law enforcement officers. The FBI has been active in teaching this curriculum to other law enforcement trainers throughout the United States. The majority of the FBI’s field offices also participate in local Hate Crime Working Groups. These Working Groups combine community and law enforcement resources to develop strategies to address local hate crime problems.
  • National Church Arson Task Force: The FBI plays an active role in the National Church Arson Task Force, created in 1996 in response to a rash of arsons at African-American churches. The Task Force, which includes representatives of five federal agencies and the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, works with state/local authorities to investigate church arsons.
  • Public Outreach: The FBI has forged partnerships nationally and locally with many civil rights organizations to establish rapport, share information, address concerns, and cooperate in solving problems. These groups include such organizations as the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, the National Organization for Women, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Disability Rights Network.
  • Training: The FBI conducts hundreds of operational seminars, workshops, and training sessions annually for local law enforcement, minority and religious organizations, and community groups to promote cooperation and reduce civil rights abuses. Each year, the FBI also provides hate crimes training for new agents, hundreds of current agents, and thousands of police officers worldwide.

How Hate Crimes are Investigated and Prosecuted

  • The FBI initiates a hate crime investigation when an allegation is received from a reliable source. Most complaints are received from the victim, a witness, or a third party. Many cases are also initiated by media reports, community group complaints, referrals from Department of Justice or U.S. Attorneys, and congressional inquiries.
  • Under guidelines developed in conjunction with the Department of Justice, once a complaint is received, the FBI will determine if the matter warrants a preliminary or full investigation.
  • Once a case is opened, a logical investigation is conducted within a reasonable period of time.