Updated Nov. 12, 5:25 p.m. ET
While the number of reported hate crimes dipped slightly in 2018, violence against individuals rose to a 16-year high, according to numbers released Tuesday by the FBI.
The FBI's annual tally counted 7,120 hate crimes reported last year, 55 fewer than the year before. The main concern for extremism trackers, however, is the rising level of violence — the report showed an increase in the number of "crimes against persons," such as intimidation, assault and homicide.
"We're seeing a leaner and meaner type of hate crime going on," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino. "Homicides were up and crimes against persons were up and that's an important thing to look at."
Hate crimes targeting people accounted for 61% of all hate crimes in 2018, according to Levin, who is co-author of a report released Tuesday that analyzes law enforcement data. The FBI recorded 24 murders classified as hate crimes in 2018, up from 15 in 2017.
Levin said the increase in assaults was almost evenly distributed across demographic groups, with African-Americans, Jews, whites, gays and Latinos targeted the most. As in previous years, the majority of hate crimes reported in 2018 were motivated by bias against race and ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation.
Other notable findings include:
The FBI report relies on data collected from state, tribal, local and federal law enforcement agencies. In 2018, more than 16,000 law enforcement agencies participated in the Hate Crime Statistics Program, though a little more than 2,000 agencies reported hate crime incidents. The number of participating agencies decreased by less than 1%, which Levin said corresponds with the drop in incidents.
While the FBI tally can be a useful tool for researchers, the fact that not all hate crime incidents are reported means it is an imperfect record.
Stacey Hervey, a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver who studies extremism and hate crimes, said it is important to examine individual state records because their agencies have different hate crime laws and reporting measures. Incidents are classified as hate crimes at the discretion of individual police officers, who may come to different conclusions about to what extent a particular incident was caused solely by bias, she said.
Levin also noted the inconsistencies in hate crime patterns and reporting across the country, comparing the FBI's hate crime data to a national weather report.
"In other words, well, the average is about 42 percent humidity and 53 degrees, [so] your temperature may vary," he said. "Same thing with regard to hate crimes."
According to the Arab American Institute, the FBI data excludes the Nov. 2, 2018, mass shooting at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Fla., which local authorities described as a "premeditated misogynist attack."
Two of the most high-profile bias-motivated homicides in recent history were prosecuted as hate crimes, but never officially reported as such. The murders of Khalid Jabara in 2016 and Heather Heyer in 2017 were not included in FBI data, and their omissions prompted the introduction of the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act. The proposed law would improve hate crime reporting, expand resources for victims and strengthen federal laws that combat hate speech and attacks.
The number of hate groups across the country also increased from 2017 to 2018, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that monitors hate groups and other extremists. The SPLC tracked 954 hate groups across the U.S in 2017 and 1,020 in 2018.
Some advocates and researchers see a clear relationship between hate crimes and divisive rhetoric surrounding hot-button topics like immigration.
"The data also expose a disturbing trend in our politics — and the impact it is having on people," Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, said in a statement. "The Trump administration has advanced policies, and the president has trafficked in rhetoric, targeting the same communities that have also experienced a surge of hate violence."
In an email to NPR, Janet Murguía, president and CEO of Latino nonprofit advocacy organization UnidosUS, responded to the report:
"It troubles us, and it should trouble everyone, that Latinos just going about their day in the most ordinary of ways are being targeted simply because of who they are. We're saddened but not shocked that the number of violent hate crimes against Hispanics has increased. President Trump frequently refers to Latinos in the most hateful and bigoted ways, and words matter. Having just visited El Paso and hearing first hand from the victims of the tragic shooting there, I know that hateful words have hateful consequences, and can result in violence and even death. President Trump should be aware that in the community's mind, he bears some responsibility for the increase in hate crimes against Latinos," she wrote.
Hervey said the increase in crimes against persons might be a sign that people are more willing to take their hatred to violent levels.
"That might be police departments are becoming more aware, but it also could be people are feeling much more comfortable in this climate to take action," she said.
Levin's report also notes that the number of false hate crime reports in the U.S. fell from 28 in 2017 to 11 in 2018, and most last year were attributed to college students and teenagers.
Rachel Treisman is an intern on NPR's National Desk.