The attack on a transgender woman earlier this month in Charleston has renewed questions about whether police reporting methods effectively track hate crimes in South Carolina, one of few states without a law on such offenses.
Officers who responded to the Aug. 19 call near an Ann Street nightclub did not initially note that the woman's gender identity might have motivated her attacker. That detail emerged the same day, but the police said their procedures prevent detectives who do follow-up investigations from adjusting initial incident reports to record such bias motivation.
When the report was released publicly days after the crime, the police cited the document without the updated information and insisted that the assault was not a suspected hate crime.
That wasn't true.
The mischaracterization of such crimes can deter gay and transgender people from contacting police, said Chase Glenn, executive director of the Charleston advocacy group Alliance for Full Acceptance. But he applauded the Charleston Police Department's steps since the attack to discuss how to better handle similar situations. Top police officials agreed to participate in a town hall about the issue Tuesday at a city community center.
"Things go underreported because people fear being dismissed," Glenn said. "There is going to be reluctance to come forward. ... Or crimes will be reported as an aggravated assault when there really was bias motivation."
The 34-year-old Goose Creek woman was knocked out during the confrontation that remains unsolved. Detectives earlier this week released a surveillance image showing someone they want to question. They declined to say whether the man clad in a purple shirt and orange pants was a possible suspect.
The victim is recovering and recently returned to work, Glenn said.
Charleston police officials said that despite the initial report failing to label the assault as a possible hate crime, the agency can make an adjustment later, ensuring that the right information is sent to an FBI program that tallies hate crimes.
Police Chief Luther Reynolds said it's normal practice in such cases to review evidence and re-interview witnesses and victims to properly characterize the crime. But "we don't ever change ... an original report."
Other police agencies in the state, though, do make such adjustments.
"We want to get this right," Reynolds said. "This is important to us."
Reports of hate crimes in the U.S. spiked in 2016 to 6,100, the highest level since 2011. But South Carolina's total dipped from 69 in 2015 to 23 the next year, the state's lowest tally since the FBI started compiling the data in 1996. Advocates, though, said the decline was likely a reflection of poor reporting.
Charleston police share statistics on hate crimes publicly on their website, which showed two in the past three years. Both occurred in 2015, when a race-motivated mass shooting killed nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church. Another involved an assault on a white person.
Charleston sends the crime data monthly to the State Law Enforcement Division, police spokesman Charles Francis said. SLED later forwards the statistics to the FBI. Any updates to old cases also are sent to SLED once a month, Francis added.
But some updates don't make it to the FBI before an annual hate crimes report is released. Though the FBI showed four hate crimes in Charleston in 2015, two were not actually hate crimes, Francis said.
In the recent attack, the police said the woman left some King Street bars about 2 a.m. with two other people, including her sister. A man confronted her near Deco Nightclub on Ann Street and used slurs about her being transgender, the police said.
The report said the man kicked the woman's sister in the stomach in the nearby Charleston Visitor Center parking garage. When the woman came to her sister's aid, the man punched her in the left side of her head.
The woman was unconscious and bleeding on the ground when an officer arrived, but she soon woke up. The officer spoke with the woman's sister, the report stated.
A portion of the document titled "suspect hate/bias motivated" was completed, but it said, "None."
The suspicion of hate motivation didn't emerge until later that day, when a detective interviewed the victim at a hospital, Francis said.
But late last week — five days after the attack — the police said the woman hadn't been assaulted because she is transgender. As posts about the attack circulated on social media, they corrected the statement Tuesday.
Reynolds said detectives who later discover a hate motivation should file a supplement to the original report without altering the first document.
"We're sensitive to that," he said.
Hate crimes are not separate offenses in South Carolina, which makes statistics especially hard to track, advocates said, and incident reports used by some police departments do not include a place for officers to note a bias motivation. Legislators have proposed bills to define hate crimes under state law and prescribe prison sentences, but the measures have stalled.
Shelley Rose, deputy regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, has told The Post and Courier that the five states without hate crime laws typically resist creating one because they don’t want special laws for certain groups.
"Laws help track it," she said. "They help provide law enforcement with education and information about what to look for and how to help the victims."