Charlottesville chief vows to update hate crime data

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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) -- The panic and fear of August 2017 still echo in the minds of many who witnessed the events in Charlottesville.

Car plows into a crowd of protesters demonstrating against white nationalists in Charlottesville, VA, Photo Date: 8/12/2017 / Photo: Brennan Gilmore / Twitter / (MGN)

People watched a car purposely plunge into a crowd on Aug. 12, bodies sent flipping through the air. Dozens of people were injured. Heather Heyer was killed gone.

And yet, according to the federal government’s latest report on hate crimes, it never happened.

A year and half into her grief, reading the messages left for her daughter doesn’t get any easier for Susan Bro, Heyer's mother.

“That picture right there is from a guy who never met her. Captures her essence better than any picture I’ve ever seen. We miss her laugh, we all miss her laugh," she said.

Heyer went to Charlottesville in to protest a white supremacist rally.

“She was passionate about social justice,” added Bro.

James Fields, Jr. attended that rally and killed Heyer, running over her with his car. He injured dozens more.

Federal prosecutors charged Fields with 29 counts of violations of the hate crimes act. But in the third quarter of 2017, when Fields’ killed Heyer, federal hate crime data indicates Charlottesville had zero hate crimes.

“There’s obviously a huge flaw in the reporting system. Something has to change. We already know that crime, hate crimes have risen 17 percent in the last 10 years. And that’s with a ton of stats missing. I mean, you can go case after case and they just don’t exist on the hate crime record, ” said Bro.

That's about to change for Charlottesville.

“Let’s just start with correcting the record that it will be changed. You have the ability to amend numbers all of the time based on new information, new facts and new reporting," said Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney.

Brackney was not chief in Charlottesville in 2017, nor when the police department first reported its hate crime numbers later that year. She’s only been on the job a few months now. She’s the first African-American woman to hold the position.

“It’s such an issue in how do you capture hate in a real and meaningful way when you’re trying to use it as a data point and that’s a challenge,” said Brackney.

She points out it took the government almost a year to officially classify what Fields did as a hate crime.

“If you look at even the statute, they say the determination is based on investigation. So, let’s talk about something like Fields. When you’re thinking about him, to say it was a hate crime you had to get additional information. What might his motivation have been? Although there was hate, obvious hate and biased-based incidents that were occurring, you have to be able to prove that,” said Brackney.

She believes there’s a value to having good data, but it can’t stop there.

“We have to do better. All of us have to do better. There has to be more to it. If we’re not willing to do the hard work to say this is where we have failed as a nation and this is how we move forward as a nation, then we’re going to find ourselves just grappling with numbers again and not having any real meaningful movement from those numbers,” said Brackney.

For Heyer’s mother, better numbers could be the beginning of getting a more accurate measure of hate in America.

"Do we have a really huge crisis on our hands? Do we have a minor crisis on our hands? What exactly is happening? We don’t even know,” she said.

She’s hoping Congress will take up a bill and maybe even attach money to the reporting process. She hopes that would get more agencies to send accurate numbers. And she wants lawmakers to consider directing some of that money toward mental health issues.

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