Civil rights groups noticed a troubling spike in hate crimes in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Among the worst: 61 headstones were pushed over at a Jewish cemetery in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in September of that year; a black church in Greenville, Mississippi, was set on fire in October; that same month, three men were arrested for plotting to bomb an apartment complex, home to Somali immigrants, in Garden City, Kansas.
The frequency of hate-motivated attacks didn't end with the election of Donald Trump, whose campaign attracted support from the "alt right," a loose collection of white nationalists and white supremacists. Since the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center and ProPublica tallied 1,372 hate and bias incidents in the US.
Those numbers caught the attention of CuroLegal, a Portland, Maine, business that builds legal software. The company held a design event at Boston's Suffolk University Law School, and the CuroLegal team created Hate Crime Help, an online tool to assist people who have experienced a hate-motivated incident.
Hate Crime Help is simple to use. It asks you to answer four questions, three of which can be chosen from a prepopulated list. The fill-in-the-blank form prompts you to specify whether you've experienced verbal hate, harassment, property damage or violence. It asks where the incident occurred -- at work, home, online or wherever -- and it asks for a ZIP code, along with the reason you think the incident happened, such as because of your sexual orientation or religion.
CuroLegal's emphasis on ease of use is deliberate. Targets of hate incidents are often scared and anxious. A complex form would only compound a situation complicated by the fact that hate crimes and bias incidents are defined differently under the law. The distinction between them might escape many people.
"We wanted to give people the basics about what a hate crime is, how that differs from bias incidents and have them understand what their state law says about hate crimes," said Nicole Bradick, CuroLegal's owner and chief strategy officer. Before CuroLegal, Bradick was a litigator who had done civil rights work.
After the form is filled out, Hate Crime Help directs users toward resources like a local police station or relevant organization, along with context about what to expect from those organizations. There's also a section called "Know Your Rights," which explains the difference between a hate crime and a bias incident, as well as federal and state laws.
Hate crimes involve actual criminal activity like the destruction of property, assault and murder. Bias incidents don't. If someone yells a racial slur at you on the street, it's unpleasant and scary, but legal under the First Amendment. If that person spray-paints that slur on your house, it's a crime.
Hate Crime Help might address another problem with hate incident data. Authorities say no full numbers for hate incidents exist in the US because they're underreported. Victims avoid authorities out of distrust, fear of retribution or, in some cases, concerns about their legal status.
The difficulty collecting data is evident in official statistics. The FBI estimates roughly 6,000 hate crimes are reported in the US every year, while a different Department of Justice report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, derived from the National Crime Victimization Survey, puts that number at around 250,000 each year. The discrepancy stems from the fact that the FBI gets its number from local law enforcement agencies, while the survey bypasses the challenges of hate crimes getting reported to local police, accurately categorized as hate crimes, and then reported to the FBI.
The information gap creates another problem. If authorities can't agree on the number and severity of hate incidents, it's hard for them to make a case those incidents should be taken as seriously as things like robbery or aggravated assault.
"We are frankly doing a horrific job of just getting basic data about the level of hate crime in the United States," said Heidi Beirich, who heads the SPLC's Intelligence Project. "The lack of statistics directly undermines the ability to contend with the very serious problem in our society."
Beirich also said that efforts like Hate Crime Help could help underscore the reporting problem and put pressure on federal authorities to fix the situation.
To complicate things, laws differ from state to state. Some states like Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, Indiana and Wyoming don't have hate crime laws. There are also federal hate crime laws. Bradick said it can be daunting to figure out where you might fit into all of that.
With those post-election hate crime numbers ticking up, CuroLegal spent about three months working on Hate Crime Help. While it built everything in-house, it held that Boston event to consult with groups like the Anti-Defamation League, GLAD, the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Massachusetts Attorney General's office.
While CuroLegal worked on this pro bono, networking hardware company Cisco paid the costs.
"We're all about how to use technology to create opportunities for people to better their lives," said Cisco senior vice president and general counsel Mark Chandler in a statement. "We saw there was difficulty in people figuring out what hate crimes are, whether they've been victimized and where to get help."
CuroLegal's team, plus two law students recommended by the American Bar Association Center for Innovation, had to bring together a variety of data sources, including a Google API for local law enforcement data -- and also create protections in case trolls wanted to target the site, Bradick said.
"We're working under the assumption here that if people know more what's going to happen, they're more likely to take that action and advocate for themselves," Bradick said, and perhaps they won't get bounced around from agency to agency and eventually quit in frustration.
CuroLegal sees Hate Crime Help as a first iteration and is looking for funding to improve the site.
"We see this as just the beginning of this project," Bradick said.
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