By Cid Standifer and Riley Roliff

Henrietta says she doesn’t know exactly how it happened. One moment she was driving home from the dentist, and the next she had struck her neighbor’s parked car. Her neighbor emerged from his house furious, and Henrietta said she called the police because she got scared.

But she says she has no idea why Cleveland police labeled the incident a hate crime motivated by anti-transgender bias.

The incident report Buckeye Flame received from the Cleveland police labels the neighbor’s angry statements as menacing, and Henrietta as the crime victim. Henrietta – who asked that only her first name be used – said she’s not transgender, and as far as she knows, nobody involved in the incident was.

Henrietta’s is not the only case from 2021 that appears to be mislabeled.

The Buckeye Flame verified with crime victims that at least three reports from Cleveland in 2021 were mislabeled as anti-transgender hate crimes, and more appear to be potentially mislabeled based on the narratives officers wrote in their reports. The Akron Police Department also acknowledged that all of the anti-trans hate crimes they reported to the FBI that year were mislabeled. That means somewhere between one- and two-thirds of the anti-trans hate crimes reported to the FBI from Ohio in 2021 were done so in error.

The Cleveland Division of police, like many departments around the country, sends the FBI information about specific types of crimes reported each year. Between 2019 and 2020, the data Cleveland sent to the FBI shows a huge spike in hate crimes against transgender people. The department reported just two anti-trans hate crimes in 2019, a dozen in 2020, and 15 in 2021. More than half the Ohio anti-transgender hate crimes reported to the FBI for 2021 came from the Cleveland police.

The Cleveland department’s internal data for hate crimes also shows a spike in hate crimes against transgender people, though the numbers differ slightly from the FBI data. The Cleveland police provided a spreadsheet of incidents labeled as involving bias, including bias against transgender people, from 2015 through Sept. 2022. That data lists three anti-transgender hate crimes in 2019, 24 in 2020, and 25 in 2021.

The Buckeye Flame requested all 25 of the 2021 incidents listed in their database as anti-transgender. The Flame received 22 reports. Reporters attempted to contact every victim named in those reports through social media, by phone, and by visiting the address listed in the police report. 

Reporters reached three people, including Henrietta; the owner of a portable washing machine that was stolen from her building’s mail room; and a woman whose house was struck by a car when she wasn’t home. All three said they didn’t identify as transgender and had no idea why police might think the incident they reported was a hate crime.

Other events the Cleveland police labeled as anti-trans hate crimes include:

  • A drunk driving incident that listed the City of Cleveland as the crime victim
  • Disputes over cars
  • A person almost hit by a stray bullet while working inside an attic
  • One partner threatening another partner over a missed prenatal doctor appointment

Henrietta said the police were respectful and helpful when she called them, but she was concerned that they mislabeled her report.

“It seems like the transgender community has enough issues without them making more up,” she told The Buckeye Flame.

What’s a hate crime? Depends.

Rebecca Stotzer, a professor at the University of Hawaii who studies hate crimes, said that a myriad of factors could be gumming up Cleveland’s hate crime statistics. For example, she noted police officers often don’t have enough training in what constitutes a hate crime; hate crime victims may not report incidents to the police out of a lack of trust; and that federal hate crime definitions don’t line up exactly with every state’s definition.

The FBI defines a hate crime as a crime motivated by bias against someone because of their “perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.” In particular, the FBI mentions that hate crimes often involve assault, murder, arson, vandalism, or threatening to commit a crime. The Ohio Revised Code, meanwhile, doesn’t cover sexual orientation or gender identity, and only explicitly covers menacing, criminal mischief, criminal damaging or endangerment, and telecommunications harassment.

Cleveland police spokesperson Wilfredo Diaz said via email that Cleveland officers decide whether something is a hate crime based on the Ohio Revised Code. If they think a crime was motivated by bias, they are supposed to check with a supervisor before adding a bias label. Then detectives and prosecutors investigate and decide what charges are appropriate.

“[I]f a report is initially inadvertently categorized wrong it does not automatically finalize as a ‘hate crime,’” Diaz added. “The detective, supervisor or even the prosecutor who review the report would have the responsibility to not charge or prosecute for hate crime.”

Two suspects named in the 2021 reports labeled as anti-transgender hate crimes faced charges over the incidents, The Buckeye Flame found. Neither was charged with a hate crime.

Diaz said that officers’ basic training at the Ohio Police Officer Training Academy covers identifying hate crimes, and all Cleveland officers took another OPOTA course all about hate crimes in 2022. That’s on top of the department’s 2019 in-service training on bias-free policing.

Asked about reports that appeared to be mislabeled, Diaz said it was impossible to tell without the full context of the incidents whether they were accurately marked, or why officers might have thought they were hate crimes.

The narratives from two 2021 Cleveland police reports marked as anti-transgender hate crimes suggest that trans people were involved. In April 2021, a transgender woman reported that her neighbor, who overheard her being intimate with her fiancé, pounded on their door, shouting slurs and making threats. 

Another report came from a fast food cashier who said a customer became angry and threw something at a hanging menu after she called them “sir.” The cashier was listed in the report as the victim, the crime listed was “menacing,” and it was labeled as motivated by anti-transgender bias. The report did not indicate whether the cashier was trans- or cisgender.

Stotzer said that in the case where the woman was threatened by her neighbor, the suspect’s alleged use of anti-gay slurs probably tipped off the officers taking the report that the threats were motivated by bias. The case at the fast food restaurant, she said, sounded more ambiguous, but an officer may have labeled it as a hate crime because it seemed to involve a conflict over gender identity. While an incident could be a hate crime if it was motivated by bias against cis people, though, Stotzer said it wouldn’t be considered anti-trans.

“It’s actually progress of a type,” Stotzer added. “That’s showing the awareness of law enforcement officials that there’s something here we need to be paying attention to.”

Technical difficulties

The Akron Police Department reported the second highest number of anti-trans hate crimes in the state in 2021, according to FBI data. The incidents reported by Akron as anti-trans crimes included larceny, drug use, weapons law violations, theft from a motor vehicle, and one rape.

When The Buckeye Flame requested full incident reports from the Akron police, a department spokesperson, Michael Leslie, said via email that the department’s computer system had reported erroneous data to the FBI, and is working to have it corrected. 

“There have been no Trans Bias hate reports filed with APD,” he added.

Leslie said a software system from a company called Tyler Technology caused the problem. 

Diaz said that Cleveland uses a software system called New World Law Enforcement Record Management System. New World is a software company owned by Tyler Technologies.

Tyler Technologies declined to answer The Buckeye Flame’s questions, or say which police departments use their services.

“As a general practice, we do not publish or provide a list of clients,” company spokesperson Karen Shields said via email. “Additionally, we only discuss technical details with our clients.”

The hate crimes that did happen

Other events suggest that 2021 was not a peaceful year for Cleveland’s trans community. That June, trans woman Tierramarie Lewis was murdered, though the motives for the crime were never clear. Her killer was not charged with a hate crime. 

In November 2021, a transgender man told police someone he met on a public bus whipped him with a chain right after overhearing that he was trans. Police told the media then that they were treating the attack as a hate crime, but it wasn’t included in the list police provided of incident reports labeled as anti-transgender hate crimes.

The Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization, which helps LGBTQ+ survivors of violence in Ohio, issued a statement saying anti-trans hate crimes across the country are on the rise due to the political climate, and pointed to other jurisdictions where hate crime reports have risen.

In Columbus, BRAVO pointed out, the number of crimes based on anti-LGBTQ+ hatred nearly quintupled between the first nine months of 2019 and 2022. A Columbus news station reported that a flag pride was burned, and a woman was harassed online for being queer.

The Buckeye Flame asked the Columbus Division of Police for all reports labeled as anti-trans hate crimes between 2019 and 2023, but did not receive a response before publication. A department spokesperson said they use PremierOne software by Motorola to manage incident reports.

Stotzer said it’s hard to guess how many hate crimes are happening in any given city because we know so little about how many transgender people are in any community, how often they are targeted because of who they are, and how that might be changing over time. 

One national survey of almost 30,000 self-identified trans, genderqueer and non-binary people in 2015 found that almost half said they’d been verbally harassed in the previous year, and 9% had been physically attacked. The Justice Department also says that most hate crimes are never reported to law enforcement.

“We know, in the big picture, that [the rate of hate crimes] we see on the police reports is much lower than the rates we see in the self-report surveys,” Stotzer said. “We just have a really hard time specifying a magnitude of difference.”

This story was originally published by The Buckeye Flame. In a partnership with Signal Cleveland, it was edited by Laura Putre of the Signal Cleveland Editors Bureau.

The Buckeye Flame amplifies the voices of LGBTQ+ Ohioans to support community and civic empowerment through the creation of engaging content that chronicles triumphs, struggles, and lived experiences.