Homeland Security

Here’s two actions Congress can take now to make our communities safer

Law enforcement process the scene in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue
Associated Press/Brandon Wade

As reports first began to trickle out that a gunman had taken worshipers hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas during Shabbat services on Jan. 15, the nation watched in horror as a terrorist threatened one of America’s most sacrosanct activities: the practice of faith. Fortunately, this incident — described by President Biden as both a hate crime and an act of terrorism — ended without death or injury to the hostages.

But this fact should not be taken to minimize the fear that has reverberated through the Jewish community in its aftermath. Before the nation could even catch its breath after Colleyville, reports began to filter out of bomb threats targeting historically black colleges and universities.

These recent high-profile acts of hate come in the context of a historic surge in hate crimes and bias-motivated incidents, many of which never make the headlines. The FBI’s annual hate crimes report found a 13 percent increase in reported hate crimes in 2020 compared to the previous year and represented the highest total in almost two decades. This included a 49 percent increase in reported hate crimes targeting Black individuals as well as a significant increase in the number of reported anti-Asian American Pacific Islander hate crimes.

Hate crimes targeting the Jewish community made up nearly 60 percent of all religion-based hate crimes. What’s more, houses of worship across religions are a frequent target of hate crimes, according to FBI data. In the past five years, the FBI reported 1,443 hate crimes that took place in a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. The increase in reported hate crimes in 2020 came even though the number of law enforcement agencies voluntarily providing data to the FBI declined for the third straight year. Experts agree that the hate crime data reported by the FBI likely is a significant undercount of the actual number of such crimes occurring annually.

Some of the same people who encourage hate are also America’s most deadly terrorists. according to a new ADL report, in 2021, extremists killed at least 29 people in the United States;  26 of these murders were committed by right-wing extremists. Even though 2021 saw far fewer extremist killings compared to 2015 through 2019, which ranged from 45 to 78 as a result of mass-casualty shooting sprees or other mass killings, the numbers are still in line with recent years once mass incidents are factored out.

While the frequency of hate-motivated attacks can make these incidents feel normal or inevitable, there is much more that policymakers can do to help prevent hate crimes and domestic terror attacks, and to reduce their impact when they happen.

First, policymakers must center the communities most impacted by hate crimes in the process of developing a comprehensive approach to hate crime prevention, incident response and supporting communities in the aftermath of an incident. Congress recently took one strong step forward by passing the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which will make it easier to report hate crimes, such as through local reporting hotlines. But passing this legislation is only the beginning. To ensure that these programs are meaningfully implemented, Congress needs to fund their implementation. As of now it has not.

Sadly, we could see more violent attacks. That means that we must secure places of worship that have come to be targeted by these threats. The federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program was established to provide government funding to defray expenses that nonprofit organizations — including faith-based organizations like churches and synagogues — use to secure themselves, ranging from security cameras to active shooter training. Unfortunately, the funding Congress provided last year covered less than half of the funds that nonprofit organizations applied for.

Given the rise in hate and relative obscurity of the method by which funding is made available, there likely will be demand for far more funding in the coming years. Communities should not be expected to simply persevere — we need support to become more resilient. Congress should double the amount of funding available. Last year, there were approximately $400 million in applications for this program — doubling it from $180 million to $360 million is a simple step that Congress can take to increase security and ease community anxiety nationwide.

These funding streams are just two discrete approaches to addressing hate and violent extremism and Congress must continue to engage with impacted communities to develop a comprehensive strategy. But providing resources for communities to take matters into their own hands — to report hate, and to secure their own institutions — are direct, simple ways that Congress can help protect our communities now.

Chelsea Parsons is Director of Government Relations at ADL (the Anti-Defamation League).

Tags Extremism Hate crimes Joe Biden Nonprofit Security Grant Program

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