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Federal investigators say reports of hate crimes continue to climb across the US

(FBI headquarters in Salt Lake City. Photo: Paul Nelson)

SALT LAKE CITY – Anti-Asian slurs screamed at a storeowner in Cottonwood Heights.  A swastika scratched into the glass of a synagogue in Salt Lake City and another one painted in a parking lot in Logan.  These are some of the most recent reports of hate crimes being investigated in Utah.

On the surface, these types of crimes, with such overt messaging, might be easily understood as hate crimes. But in the bigger picture, federal investigators say there is a lot of confusion about hate crimes.

In 2019, analysts with the FBI said there were more than 8,500 victims of hate crimes across the US, with most of those crimes being racially motivated. 

Has there been a rise in hate crimes in Utah?  Agents say that’s hard to know. But what they can say with certainty, said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Dustin Grant, is that more potential victims are coming forward.

“Nationally, I would say there is definitely a rise in reporting and things that we’re seeing,” Grant said.

However, Grant said not all of those reports reach the level of a federal hate crime.  In many cases, hateful speech is protected by the First Amendment.  Grant says once the speech becomes threatening to either a person or a community, that changes everything.

“When you’re using that speech to, then, further threats or violence against a particular protected group or individual, then that could rise to a hate crime,” he said.

With so much speech coming in the form of codes or symbols, Grant said many people have questions about the things they see or read on the Internet.  For instance, is someone making an OK sign with their hands, or are they trying to convey a message of white supremacy?  Grant said, when in doubt, err on the side of caution and give them a call.

“There are so many symbols that have double meanings,” Grant said, “so it makes it kind of difficult, sometimes, to decipher what that may actually mean.”

The FBI is constantly reaching out to communities that are frequently targeted by hate crimes to ensure people know how these cases can be reported. 

“Sometimes, there’s a hesitancy some of these groups and individuals, especially if they don’t have [legal] status in this country to report incidents that may happen to them,” he said.

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