Fake Hate Crime Reports Do Real Damage to Religious and Ethnic Minorities

Jussie Smollett lied when he told police he had been the victim of a homophobic attack, authorities said.
Surveillance video, left, showing two men in an area where Jussie Smollett, right, said he was attacked by two men yelling racial epithets.Chicago Police/Lee Daniels

Though they are rare, false hate crime reports can overshadow the very real problem of discrimination.

They were stories that captivated news reports and social media.

A teenage Muslim girl cornered on a crowded subway car by taunting young men who tell her to "get out of the country," calling her a terrorist and yelling "take off that f***ing" head scarf. An openly gay African-American actor attacked by two men who doused him with bleach, threw a noose around his neck and beat him.

But neither report is true, authorities say. And experts say that fictionalized abuse told under a glaring media spotlight does nothing but tarnish the very real problem of hate crime.

"Empire" actor and singer Jussie Smollett was hit last week with a 16-count felony indictment alleging he staged a phony racist and homophobic attack against himself. Smollett has denied the charges, and through his attorney, maintains his innocence.

His case is the latest in a series of highly publicized hate crimes that authorities say are made up. But though such cases receive a great deal of attention, they are exceedingly rare.

Less than 1 percent of reported hate crimes are fake, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. But the harm they do by undermining the validity of real victims and keeping them from reporting actual attacks is far greater greater, experts say.

"It does real damage," Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told InsideEdition.com. "They have a real potential to deter people from reporting," he said, and then when people do say they have been the victim of a hate crime, "they are met with suspicion."

The FBI's hate crime database received more than 7,000 reports in 2017, the most recent year of available data. But the Bureau of Justice Statistics, correcting for what is believed to be "massive under-reporting," estimates that number may be as high as 250,000.

"A lot of people don't report hate crimes," Cohen said. If you are targeted because of your sexual orientation, "you don't know whether the police will ridicule you because you're gay, or maybe you're not out yet," he explained. "If you're undocumented, you're not going to report an ethnicity attack because you fear being deported."

According to the FBI's data, the most common types of recent hate crimes were against African-Americans, followed by attacks on members of the LGBTQ community and Jewish people.

Because hate crimes are so under-reported, Cohen said, when false claims come forward, "it makes things even worse."

Why do people make up such stories? Some want to "cloak themselves in the mantle of victimhood," Cohen said. Others want attention. Some are trying to cover up their own misdeeds by claiming they were victimized.

One month after Donald Trump won the presidential election and tension gripped the country, an 18-year-old Muslim student told police she had been surrounded by three white Trump supporters on a crowded subway train. They yelled "Trump! Trump!" and tried to rip off her hijab while other passengers did nothing, she said.

The Baruch College student later recanted the story and pleaded guilty in 2017 to filing a false police report. She reportedly made up her story to cover for going out drinking with friends and getting home late. 

A black sailor on the carrier George H.W. Bush claimed in 2017 that someone scrawled the N-word across his bunk and ripped up his belongings. "I proudly serve the Navy and this is what I'm receiving in return," he wrote on his Facebook page. Navy investigators later said the man had staged the event himself. He was not identified, but a spokesman said the sailor had "received appropriate administrative actions and additional counseling and training."

And in January, a former Drake University student pleaded guilty to making false reports over racist notes found in residence halls. Kissie Ram, 19, acknowledged writing one of several racist notes and falsely claimed she had received one as well, authorities said. 

All of the notes were hoaxes, authorities said. Ram, who was charged with a misdemeanor, was ordered to perform community service and pay a $200 fine. The notes demanded that African-American students leave campus "or else," police said. 

On a mental health level, cases like these usually involve people with "tremendously low self-esteem and who feel powerless," Dr. Judith Orloff, a Los Angeles psychiatrist and author, told InsideEdition.com.

"It's an acting out of some sort," she said of Smollett's alleged behavior. "He was going out of his way to get publicity. It's a cry for help because it's so obvious that he would get caught."

According to Cohen, such people seek sympathy while living "quiet lives of desperation."

Lying in public about hate crime "is quite unfortunate," he said. "It casts suspicion on all reports of hate crimes."