Discussing the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, and why the Matthew Shepard Foundation is headquartered in Denver, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper told an interviewer in 2009: “Colorado and Wyoming are very similar. We have some of the same, you know, backwards thinking in the kind of rural Western areas you see in, you know, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico.”
Tom Tancredo, running against Hickenlooper in the governor’s race, has seized on the remark, which was reported by National Review Online on Oct. 22.
“It’s not just an offhand comment about the difference between rural and city folk, you know,” said Tancredo, appearing on the Glenn Beck show [see video above]. “Remember the context. He’s talking about a murder, the murder of a young man up in Wyoming because he was a homosexual. And he’s suggesting that that’s a relatively common sort of attitude out here in the West – in Colorado, he said, Wyoming, Montana. What a thing to say.”
In light of FBI statistics, the mayor might have done better to look in his own backyard: hate crimes occur at a slightly higher rate in his city of Denver as compared to the state of Colorado as a whole. Notably, the Denver rate of reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation appears to be more than double the rest of the state.
There are a number of caveats to that conclusion that I’ll discuss below. And the FBI itself provides this warning:
The data user is, therefore, cautioned against comparing statistical data of individual reporting units from cities, counties, metropolitan areas, states, or colleges or universities solely on the basis of the statistics provided. Until data users examine all the variables that influence crime in a town, city, county, state, region, or college or university, they can make no meaningful comparisons.
If only Mayor Hickenlooper had heeded that advice.
Initially, Hickenlooper defended his 2009 remark, with a spokesman saying that he was “making the point that the kind of intolerance that led to Matthew Shepard’s murder is not unique to a single community in Wyoming,” according to this 9News report. “It’s something that can happen in any community.”
Hickenlooper revised his recollection in Oct. 23 remarks in Greeley.
“I was obviously mistaken,” Hickenlooper said, reported the Greeley Tribune. “I was trying to say that it’s not just Wyoming. It happens everywhere. It happens in urban areas, as well as rural areas.”
The post-hoc spin on the 2009 remark was not plausible, but at least Hickenlooper did stop asserting that rural areas are worse than urban ones. Even after the Hickenlooper retraction, Denver Post publisher Dean Singleton opined on a radio show that “…there’s probably some truth to what he had to say – he probably said it the wrong way.”
It would take a very long article to compare every rural area in Colorado with every urban area regarding the incidence of hate crimes – and to provide the context that would allow a meaningful analysis.
Below is a quick look at the Colorado data.
The FBI website provides jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction data on hate crimes for every year from 1995 through 2008. My intern Shelby Lane gathered Colorado data for 2004 through 2008. The cumulative results are presented in a PDF here.
For the five-year period, the FBI recorded 627 hate crimes in Colorado, 91 of them in Denver. So Denver accounted for 14.5 percent of reported hate crimes in Colorado. At this same time, Denver accounted for 12 percent of the Colorado population. (Denver population of 568,692 and Colorado population of 4,753,044, as of July 1, 2006, based on Census Bureau estimates.)
As for hate crimes involving sexual orientation, there were 91 in Colorado in 2004-08, and 23 of them took place in Denver. Thus, Denver accounted for 25.3% of sexual-orientation hate crimes. In other words, the rate of reported sexual-orientation hate crimes in Denver was more than double the Colorado rate.
These data hardly support the jibe that the kind of “backwards thinking” which leads to violent crimes being perpetrated against sexual minorities is primarily a problem of “rural Western areas.”
Some caveats: Although the reporting guidelines for the FBI Uniform Crime Reports are, by definition, uniform throughout the United States, different law enforcement agencies may have different practices in how they implement those guidelines. Also, there’s no way to know from the raw numbers the severity of the reported incidents, nor the disposition in the criminal justice system. Another unknown is the incidence of hate crimes that occur but are not reported.
Furthermore, not every jurisdiction participates in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. According to the FBI, for 2008, participating agencies provided coverage of “96.0 percent of the population in Metropolitan Statistical Areas, 87.6 percent of the population in cities outside metropolitan areas, and 90.0 percent of the population in nonmetropolitan counties.”
The appendix in the PDF above lists only Colorado jurisdictions that reported at least one hate crime in 2004-08. Those Colorado jurisdictions that reported zero hate crimes in 2008, for example, are listed here.
Moreover, the fact that Denver’s sexual orientation hate-crime rate appears to be double the statewide rate may be the result of Denver having a higher percentage of LGBT population. If we hypothesize that that hate-crime rate is the same statewide, but that the percentage of the Denver’s population which is LGBT in Denver is twice the statewide average, then Denver’s higher rate of sexual-orientation hate crimes could reflect the fact that Denver has twice the number of potential victims.
Even with all the caveats, the FBI data for Colorado seem to indicate that the “backwards thinking” that leads to hate crimes knows no geography.
- Anti-LGBTQ Hate Violence in 2009, PDF, National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs
- Denver Police Department develops Bias Crimes Unit, PDF, June 2009
- Obama signs Hate Crimes Bill, Oct. 28, 2009, New York Times