Hotline could help in understanding motivation behind hate crimes, but needs improvement

Data from the 3-year-old tool, launched by the Legislature, indicate that hate crimes, especially against Asians, are on the rise

July 18, 2022 6:00 am

Oregon’s hate crime hotline indicates that they’re on the rise, particularly against Asians. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty) Images

Where do hate crimes come from? From mass shootings to those of smaller scope, more understanding of the dynamics behind them can be a critical element to coping with them.

A new tool launched by the Oregon Legislature three years ago may help provide some of that insight if it is put to its most effective use.

The 2019 Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 577, which restructured how the state approaches the crimes, renaming the crime of “intimidation” as a “bias crime.” The bill’s analysis said it “proposes to shift the focus toward the nature of the harm and use and threat of violence in addition to the motives behind the crime of violence.”

More concretely, it required the state Department of Justice to set up the Bias Response Hotline, a staffed resource that “any victim of a bias or a hate incident can call … to report an incident, connect with trained staff and receive a referral to law enforcement, if appropriate.”

Call the hotline

Trauma-informed operators are available 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The service has interpreters in 240 languages. Afterhours, leave a message and operators will call back.

Call 844-924-BIAS or 844-924-2427

The law also required an annual report from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission reviewing bias (or hate) crimes, drawing on information from various local, state and federal sources and also from the hotline. The third annual report was released in late June.

It provided useful information. It could be more useful.

There’s plenty of data. A summary said: “Reports to the hotline increased by 53% between 2020 and 2021, from 1,101 to 1,683. Bias crimes accounted for 28% of reports in both years. Anti-Asian incidents increased by almost 200% overall, and anti-Asian bias crimes increased by 300%. Bias incidents in schools increased by 300% in this period, from 36 to 157 reports. There was also a 300% increase in bias incidents targeting hotline advocates between 2020 and 2021, which has continued into 2022.”

On the surface, this suggests hate crimes have been growing rapidly in the last couple of years, which is possible. The numbers also could reflect that the case pipeline from law enforcement and other sources through to the hotline is getting better, not necessarily that the number of crimes is increasing. But it may also suggest the efficacy of the hotline may be growing for understanding the dynamic of what is happening and why.

The hotline information has some other limitations. People who call in are self-selecting, among people who happen to know about the service or are specially motivated to call.

The information isn’t immediately cross-checked unless it is referred to law enforcement or another entity. The hotline’s website advises that “the advocate will listen, and you can share as much or as little information about the bias you experienced or witnessed; it’s your choice.  You do not have to share information like your name, your location, or your protected class information, but the advocate may ask you if it helps us respond better to you on the hotline or to connect you with some potential resources and/or support options in your community.”

The hotline’s formal stance toward callers is to believe them useful from the standpoint of providing assistance and encouragement to victims, though maybe less so as a matter of dispassionate analysis.

The hotline may be highly useful in another way: understanding the dynamics of what is happening, and how, in the cases of hate crime incidents.

This year’s annual report also, for example, included this:

“Unlike typical violent crimes that tend to be committed by solitary defendants, bias crimes are commonly perpetrated by multiple defendants – who are unlikely to engage in similar acts in a solitary setting where diffusion of responsibility and social acceptance of their aggressive behavior is not possible – or by a solitary defendant in a situation where they believe others support their beliefs. Rather than being acts perpetrated by individuals due to a disdain of differences, bias acts are influenced by defendants’ real and perceived access to resources in that specific situation, the location of the event, the presence of real and perceived sympathetic witnesses/collaborators to reduce stigma of the act and a target who is vulnerable in that situation. Accordingly, vulnerability is situational and victimization patterns will change as groups’ relative access to social, political and economic resources shifts.”

That kind of information and that paragraph wasn’t all the report contained provides a lever into understanding how these crimes occur, and maybe suggest ways of heading them off. Some of this is new and not inherently obvious and could if developed more expansively and in detail provide the kind of insight that would help pushing back against hate crimes.

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.