Reports of hate crimes and bias have surged in Seattle since 2012

Improved reporting may explain some of the fourfold increase. Still, one council member wants to make hate crimes easier to prosecute.

Since 2012, the number of reported hate crimes and incidents has increased by almost 400 percent in Seattle, a trend that has ticked up especially in recent years, according to an analysis from the Seattle City Auditor’s Office.

In addition to frequent reports of hate crimes targeted at the LGBTQ community in the Capitol Hill neighborhood and crimes based on racial and ethnic animus downtown, the auditor, David Jones, said that people with disabilities, those who speak limited English and homeless people are particularly vulnerable to attacks motivated by bias.

From 2017 to 2018, SPD saw a 25 percent increase in hate crimes and reports of bias, marking at least the sixth straight year with an increase.

At the same time, convictions based on bias incidents seen as criminal are rare — with just 37 out of 398 reported cases of “malicious harassment” or a hate crime resulting in criminal consequences.

In response, Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who requested the analysis be done, announced Thursday that she would begin conversations around making it easier to prosecute hate crimes.

“With the divisive rhetoric coming daily from the [Trump] administration, a rise in white nationalism, and the cowardly violence of domestic terrorism, it’s not enough to know that these crimes are being committed,” Herbold said in a statement. “Now that we have a better picture of the trends, it’s incumbent on leaders and allies to take action to prevent, respond, investigate and prosecute hate crimes.”

In analyzing hate crimes and bias, the auditor split incidents into three categories: bias incidents that were not criminal, such as a shouted slur; crimes that were deemed to involve bias, but were not solely motivated by it; and hate crimes or “malicious harassment,” when the incident was motivated by the victim’s race, gender, sexuality, housing status or another class the police department deems as vulnerable to bias.

All three categories saw triple-digit increases since 2012.

The spike may be due, in part, to more community reports and an improved system of tracking such incidents in the Seattle Police Department. In fact, the auditor wrote, “Jurisdictions that report more hate crimes are typically seen as leaders in hate crime response efforts because high reporting can indicate law enforcement is prioritizing these crimes.”

In July 2017, the Seattle Police Department adjusted its classification system so that officers would no longer put “unknown” when asked if bias was involved or not. The department also added more categories that could be subject to bias crimes, including age, marital status, parental status and political ideology.

Indeed, in her response to the audit, Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best described the department as “a model for responding to and preventing hate crimes and other bias-involved incidents.”


Still, the dramatic uptick is part of a continuing trend in Seattle that would seem to outpace population growth. Assaults with a “hate element” increased 524 percent since 2012.

In one case, a Jewish family in West Seattle woke up to find anti-Semitic graffiti on their fence. In another case, a man said he was beaten in the Comet tavern after objecting to a homophobic slur. 

The growth is also mirrored by other reporting. The Anti-Defamation League found a 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic crime in Washington state between 2017 and 2018. Last November, the FBI said hate crimes increased nationally by 17 percent and 32 percent in Washington state when compared to the year prior.

Community organizations have also expressed concern. In responses from 54 organizations to a survey shared by the auditor, half said hate crimes are a significant issue. Fifty-nine percent said they knew at least one person who had been a victim of a hate crime or bias incident. These most often occurred at work, school or transit. 

Reports are most likely to come out of high-density and high-traffic parts of the city, including downtown and Capitol Hill. Not surprisingly, crimes occur where the vulnerable populations live: LGBTQ crimes are concentrated in Capitol Hill; race- and ethnicity-based crimes occur in and around racially diverse neighborhoods.

Additionally, reports of hate crimes against homeless victims have increased. “One community organization representative told us they were surprised to learn that crimes against the homeless can be considered a hate crime,” reads the report.

Convictions remain relatively rare. Often, victims are hesitant to participate, sometimes precisely because they are from a vulnerable population. It can also be difficult to prove someone’s motivation. “However, when enough evidence is available, there is often value in prosecuting hate crimes as malicious harassment because of the message it sends to the defendant and the community that bias related crimes will not be tolerated,” said the report.

In its recommendations, the auditor’s office said city departments should better track possible hate crimes — to which office its referred, why it might not have been sent for prosecution, and why the Seattle city attorney or King County prosecutor did or did not prosecute a case.

More generally, the auditor recommended SPD continue to better track its efforts to stem hate crime, including which crime-fighting efforts work and which don’t. The report also encouraged SPD to continue outreach to community organizations to encourage them to report crimes or bias.

In her response, Chief Best thanked the auditor and acknowledged the department can always do better. However, she also said that the department is already working on many of his recommendations.

“While the department in general agrees with the intent of all of the recommendations, it does feel some of them fail to acknowledge the nationally recognized work already being done by the department, as well as by its justice system partners,” said Best.

The report is the second of two audits carried out by Jones, the city auditor. The first, released in September 2017, said the police department could improve its training and reporting of hate crimes. In his most recent report, Jones said the department had completed or was making progress on some of its past recommendations, including more clarity around reporting and better outward-facing data.

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.