Victims ‘being failed’ as police resolve fewer hate crimes in 2020 than 2015 despite reports doubling

Glasgow, Scotland, UK. 26th Mar, 2020. Coronavirus lockdown Glasgow, Scotland: police patrolling the alamost deserted streets in Glasgow city centre at lunchtime Credit: Kay Roxby/Alamy Live News
Hate crime 'not taken seriously' by police, say victims and charities

Reports Mirren Gidda and Aaron Walawalkar, Liberty Investigates journalists; and Fiona Hamilton, Crime and Security Editor of the Times. Edited by Eleanor Rose, Liberty Investigates editor.

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Police forces across England and Wales resolved fewer cases of hate crime in 2020 than they did five years ago, while reports of hate crime more than doubled in the same period.

Across 40 forces, the number of hate crime cases in which officers identified a suspect and took action against them fell from 14,866 in 2015 to 14,398 in 2020, reveals an investigation by Liberty Investigates and the Times.

Meanwhile tens of thousands of those who reported hate crime last year abandoned the subsequent police investigation, according to the data in what experts said was an issue of trust.

Last year 33,546 people who reported a hate crime then withdrew from proceedings – a threefold increase on 11,075 in 2015. That places the abandonment rate at 32 percent in 2020 – significantly higher than the average pull-out rate for other types of crime of 25.3 percent in 2020.

The new data analysis shows that police identified a suspect and deployed measures such as a caution, charge, summons, penalty notice, diversionary activity – such as a victim awareness course – or community resolution, in which the suspect may apologise or make financial amends, in 468 fewer cases in 2020 compared with 2015.

"The scale of withdrawals and lack of justice represents an institutional failure of hate crime victims."

Nadia Whittome MP, former hate crime officer

Reports of hate crime – including racist, homophobic and transphobic verbal and physical abuse – rose from 52,785 in 2015 to 106,300 in 2020, in part due to public campaigns to boost victims’ confidence to come forward.

But the figures – based on data obtained from police forces across the country through Freedom of Information requests – show that only 14 percent of these victims saw conclusive outcomes from their cases in 2020, half the rate of 28 percent seen five years earlier.

The figures come despite new resource-intensive initiatives launched to tackle hate crime, including the 2017 launch of a national cyber hate crime hub, led by Greater Manchester Police.

“These findings are extremely concerning,” said Nadia Whittome MP, who previously worked as a hate crime project officer at the non-profit social enterprise Communities Inc, based in Nottingham.

“I am not surprised that people withdraw from the police and criminal system, given how negative an experience many people from marginalised groups have had. However, the scale of withdrawals and lack of justice represents an institutional failure of hate crime victims.”

Dame Vera Baird QC, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, said police had failed victims.

“It is shocking that police are clearly so unresponsive to this. If people are gaining the confidence to go to the police, only to be left lying by the wayside, there can’t be a clearer failure.”

Nadia Whittome MP said she was not surprised how many people withdraw from the police and criminal system "given how negative an experience many people from marginalised groups have had."

James and Lucy Smith* (not their real names), who belong to the West Yorkshire Gypsy community, have faced repeated letdowns when approaching police over abuse that has spanned nearly a decade.

In 2012, the Smiths – who asked not to use their real names for fear of reprisal – put in a planning application to develop a small Travellers’ site. Others in the neighbourhood opposed the plan, setting up a residents’ group against it. Over the next two years, vandals broke their fences, left poisonous plants near their livestock and pushed dog excrement through their letter box.

The harassment intensified in June 2014, when one of their outbuildings was burned down in a suspected arson. The Smiths made 10 reports to the police between 2014 and 2021 as attackers kicked doors off hinges, damaged fences and graffitied their planning permission flyers with “f*** off p*****,” “burn Gypsies” and “scum”.

Although the Smiths told police they believed opposition to their Travellers’ site could be linked to the attacks, in all 10 cases the West Yorkshire force took no further action. “It just felt like we were never taken seriously,” said Mrs Smith. “Nothing gets done, we’ve never got anywhere.” In 2020, officers finally offered the Smiths crime prevention advice, telling them to install CCTV. This was stolen a week later.

The couple complained to police that officers had not adequately investigated the racial nature of the attacks and had behaved in a discriminatory way. In July 2020, the West Yorkshire force upheld the first part of the complaint, acknowledging that, though they recorded three of the incidents the Smiths reported as hate crimes, at least two others should have been, and that they should have offered crime prevention advice earlier.

Ellie Rogers, CEO of the Gypsy and Traveller (GT) organisation Leeds GATE, described the relationship between GT people and the police as “broken”. “[Hate crime] is an everyday occurrence that just permeates people’s lives,” Rogers said. “At a local level, at an operational level, there’s no outreach to our communities around hate crime led by the police.”

“There's no overall grasp of what this is about”

Rose Simkins, Chief Executive of Stop Hate UK

Police and experts in problems facing Britain’s minoritised communities said factors affecting the results of hate crime cases are complex. There is no national standard for how forces should tackle offences, while the Government’s four-year Hate Crime Action Plan expired in May 2020, Rose Simkins, Chief Executive of Stop Hate UK points out. “I don’t think it is taken seriously at the moment, and that’s why the system is so fragmented,” she said. “There’s no overall grasp of what this is about.”

In West Yorkshire, where the Smiths faced difficulties, just eight percent of hate crime reports resulted in police taking action against a suspect in 2020 – the lowest rate seen in our investigation, shared by the Dyfed Powys force in Wales.

8%

of hate crime reports resulted in West Yorkshire police taking action against a suspect in 2020

The West Yorkshire constabulary also saw a huge rise in victim withdrawals from 2015 to 2020, when the number of cases closed because a victim withdrew support rose by 2,177 from 556 in 2015, a 392 percent increase.

This is despite the fact that West Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner made hate crime a priority area in his 2016 to 2021 Police and Crime Plan and HMICFRS commended the force for its efforts in its 2018 report.

Meanwhile, Greater Manchester Police (GMP) – which leads the national cyber hate crime hub and announced plans this year to use virtual reality to put its officers “in the footsteps” of hate crime victims – took action against suspects in 950 cases in 2020 compared with 1,376 in 2015, a drop of 31 percent. In the same time period, the number of cases abandoned by victims in Greater Manchester grew by 364 percent.

GMP’s Assistant Chief Constable Chris Sykes responded to the figures to say that the force takes hate crime seriously and is taking steps to improve its response. “Our commitment to victims is to support them from the time they make a report and throughout any resulting investigation. Where it is shown that we have not achieved this, lessons need to be learnt,” he said.

Greater Manchester Police officers take part in a virtual reality training to put themselves “in the footsteps” of hate crime victims. Credit: YouTube / Greater Manchester Police

Chief Superintendent Dennis Murray, who won the Queen’s Police Medal for his work on diversity and community outreach with Northamptonshire Police, said: “Policing has invested a significant amount of resource in hate crime… It’s well resourced.”

The problem is one of trust, said Murray. To build evidence in a hate crime case, victims and police must work closely together, yet victims come from minoritised communities – subject to higher rates of use of force and stop and search – where trust in the police is low, he said.

“It’s about building trust and confidence with the community that not only are they happy to report a hate crime, but then they’re happy to stick with it and go through with it. Because, if they don’t, we can’t get it home – no matter what we do.”

Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird called for an investigation by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMICFRS) and a fundamental shift in officer attitude. “There needs to be root-and-branch training among all officers who pick up these cases that this person will be feeling vulnerable, they need a supportive response, and it needs to be taken seriously.”

Responding to this investigation, a Home Office spokesperson insisted its approach “is working”, pointing to reductions in hate crime recorded in the Crime Survey for England and Wales (which is not subject to changes in reporting to police).

But a HMICFRS spokesperson said it has raised concerns about the “high use of certain outcome codes” in police investigations, including where a victim withdraws. “We have therefore recommended that by March 2022, the Home Office should refine the data collected on outcome codes and use this to identify trends, which we hope will lead to better support for victims – and ultimately more successful prosecutions,” they said.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Hate Crime, Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton, said that with more people reporting hate crime because of increased public awareness, some cases relate to anonymous online abuse or lack evidence. He urged victims to keep coming forward. “Our officers are highly trained, will treat everyone with respect and dignity and handle cases sensitively. We ask that victims come to us as soon as possible after an offence has been committed so we can begin our investigation as early as possible,” he said.

Meanwhile, police are working with the Crown Prosecution Service to understand why fewer cases go to court, including where a victim withdraws, he added.

“The solution has to go much deeper than a police response or trying put more offenders behind bars”

Nadia Whittome MP

Advocates for the victims of hate crime spoken to by the Times/Liberty Investigates – including at Stop Hate UK, the Racial Justice Network and Leeds GATE – said long-term solutions, including victim support and ensuring victims feel heard – must come from outside the police.

“Pretty much every single hate crime victim we’ve ever worked with, when asked: ‘What do you want when you report or don’t report?’ will say: ‘I just want it to stop,’” said Professor Neil Chakraborti, director of Leicester University’s Centre for Hate Studies, which has worked with more than 2,000 hate crime victims over the past ten years.

“They’re not so much interested in the criminal justice outcome or longer sentences for the perpetrators, or punitive measures. They just want the offending to stop.

“That requires input from a whole range of professionals, not just the police. We can start to look at this as a public health problem, as opposed to purely a criminal justice problem – but to get to that stage, we first need to acknowledge actually, we’ve got an issue here that needs to be resolved, because this isn’t good enough.”

Tackling hate crime in the long-term will require a society-wide effort, said Nadia Whittome: “The solution has to go much deeper than a police response or trying put more offenders behind bars: we have to create shifts in culture and attitudes.”

This article was published in partnership with the Times and ITV News. 

How we used the data

All of the 43 police forces in England and Wales track reports of hate crime in their individual databases. They also log the outcomes of those reports – such as whether a report resulted in a suspect being charged, or in the victim withdrawing.

Using Freedom of Information requests, Liberty Investigates (LI) asked every police force for its data on all hate crime reports received between 2015 and 2020, broken down by what the outcome was. You can view the data used in this investigation, which has been checked by independent data fact-checkers, here.

LI then grouped the forces’ various crime outcomes into four categories:

  1. Charges, summonses, cautions, fines and offences being “taken into consideration” – where an offender admits additional crimes during sentencing – anything where a case closed with officers identifying a suspect and taking some type of formal or informal action. We called these “conclusive outcomes”. We included diversionary activities – such as where a suspect takes an awareness course – and community resolutions, in which the suspect may apologise or make financial amends, in this category.
  2. We also grouped together two outcome types in which a case was closed because the victim or victims withdrew support, either before a suspect was identified or afterwards.
  3. Outcomes where further investigation or a prosecution were deemed not in the public interest by either the police or the CPS were put in a third category.
  4. All other outcomes – including where the case was transferred to another agency, or the offender or suspect died – were put in a category marked “other”.

As a result, we could see what proportion of cases resulted in a conclusive outcome for the victim – usually with police taking action against a suspect – across the 40 forces that provided us with data. We could also compare this to how many cases were closed because the victim abandoned the investigation.

Two additional forces – Humberside and Greater Manchester Police – provided data in a way which was not comparable with the other 40 forces, but could be separately analysed.

LI found there was some variation between forces in the precise wording of the outcomes used. Some forces also listed additional outcomes not included in the Home Office’s official list. Where this was the case, LI asked for information from forces on what the outcomes meant and then categorised them as appropriate.

Where forces categorised a report as a non-crime hate incident, we excluded it from our analysis. This means that an officer decided that a reported hate crime did not meet the threshold of a criminal offence.

Editor’s note: Amended on 8 October 2021 to reflect the correct name of Leeds GATE.