Hate Won't Win Unity Walk 1 (copy)

Marchers during the Hate Won't Win Unity Walk pass Emanuel AME Church in June, two years after nine black people were slain there by a self-avowed white supremacist. File/Staff

On Folly Beach, three white men kicked a black man, breaking a facial bone, because he had talked to a white woman at their job site.

In Horry County, a black man chased a white resident with a hammer while yelling slurs.

In Sumter, a man told police that he revealed he was gay to a relative, who then shoved him from a car.

In North Myrtle Beach, a woman tried to steal two electric toothbrushes from Kroger.

All four episodes were reported by police in 2016 as hate crimes, touching all corners of South Carolina that year. But only the first three instances were truly motivated by bias, indicating reporting errors that make some observers skeptical of the FBI’s recently released statistics on hate crimes.

Law enforcement agencies in the Palmetto State tallied 23 reports of hate crimes in 2016, its lowest level since the FBI started compiling the data in 1996. The number dipped from the 69 reported in 2015, when nine black church worshippers were slain in Charleston by self-avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof in one of the deadliest hate crimes in recent American history.

Nationwide, though, hate crime reports rose from 5,850 in 2015 to 6,100 last year, their highest level since 2011.

“I don’t think that’s an indication that hate crime has gone down in South Carolina,” said Shelley Rose, senior associate director of the Southeast region for the Anti-Defamation League. “What you’re seeing, especially in states like South Carolina that don’t have hate crimes laws, are problems with reporting.”

The most instances that any agency reported was two, by police on Folly Beach and in Horry County. In all, 21 agencies in cities, counties and small towns such as Andrews, Cottageville and Moncks Corner recorded at least one hate crime last year. But of the 14 that responded to inquiries from The Post and Courier, four said their reports were improperly labeled.

Other findings included:

  • At least eight cases involved assaults, ranging from knife attacks to spitting.
  • Eighteen of the 23 reports in the state included a racial bias, while three focused on sexual orientation, one on religion and one on a disability.
  • Most investigations were closed without an arrest, and some were dropped with little follow-up from the authorities.
  • At least four cases prompted arrests. No one was given imprisonment beyond the time they had already spent in jail. Suspects pleaded guilty to lesser charges and paid small fines.

'Going to kill you'

A city of nearly 3,000, Folly Beach is home to surf shops and bars that cater to tourists.

But three men from Georgia were there for construction work in April 2016, when they got into a tiff with a Goose Creek resident who also worked there. They were white. He was black.

The 24-year-old victim had talked with one man's girlfriend about vehicle parking, an incident report stated. The other men didn’t like that, the victim reported. They kicked him while yelling racial epithets.

“We are going to kill you,” one of them had said.

He survived with a broken eye socket. The men were arrested on a felony charge that carries up to 20 years in prison. They pleaded guilty to a lesser assault charge and were fined $200.

Other attacks reported to the FBI:

  • In the Upstate, Greer police said a white man in his 50s stood outside a scared black resident’s apartment and yelled, "I’m going to kill all the (N-words) in America." He was arrested and forced into mental health treatment.
  • A Conway-area resident told Horry County police that another local man didn’t like him because he’s white. The suspect, a 60-year-old black man, clutched a hammer one day and chased him down the street while shouting slurs. The suspect later pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to time served.
  • On Folly Beach, a white woman from Charleston said she was punched outside Snapper Jacks restaurant by two black women upset that she was dating a black man. The woman wasn't seriously hurt, and no suspects were found.
  • South of Greenville in Simpsonville, four white teenagers in a car rode by a black pedestrian, screaming the N-word and hurling a glass bottle that hit his head. Town police concluded months later that the assault was "random” and closed the case.
  • The man in Sumter, just outside Columbia, who reported being punched and shoved from a car by his cousin after coming out as gay, refused to press charges.

At times, investigations into alleged hate crime can reveal other motives.

Police in Florence said a man in April 2016 held a knife to another's throat and said, “I’ll kill you.” The victim escaped unharmed and wasn’t sure why he had been attacked, but a witness stated it was because he was gay.

Florence police Lt. Mike Brandt said officers must have probable cause to list hatred as a motive in an incident report. Officers make the notation by selecting a two-digit code.

But that motive, like arrests, can fall apart. The Florence suspect later acknowledged confronting the resident over a dispute involving his girlfriend, Brandt said.

“Most times,” he said, “the cases that are truly bias-motivated receive heightened scrutiny.”

'No hate crime'

Police in Andrews and North Myrtle Beach said officers had misreported hate crimes in 2016.

In North Myrtle Beach, a paperwork mistake surfaced in a shoplifting case in which a woman complaining of hygiene problems stuffed two Sonicare toothbrushes and Crest teeth-whitening strips into her purse at a Kroger store.

“There was no hate crime,” city spokesman Pat Dowling said.

Hate crime statistics are reported to the State Law Enforcement Division. The mistake, Dowling said, hadn't been caught before they were forwarded to the FBI.

A SLED effort to beef up accuracy is afoot, spokesman Thom Berry said. In September 2015, workers from its S.C. Incident Based Reporting System started an hour-long class for police academy recruits and have taught 2,400 officers since. Topics include hate crime reporting, Berry said.

A more in-depth, four-hour class also is available for officers who want it, and 550 people went through it last year.

Specifically for hate crimes, SLED also reviews hard copies of police reports to make sure bias was apparent.

“We and our FBI partners want to be sure the information being reported is as accurate as they can make it,” Berry said.

By January, a task force created by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is due to come up with ways to boost collection of hate crime data.

For now, experts said, the FBI data tend to underestimate the issue.

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, thinks the actual nationwide number might be closer to 250,000 annually, more than 40 times the total reported to the FBI last year, he said in a statement.

He attributed the uptick nationally to extremist and racist groups that feel emboldened by Donald Trump’s successful candidacy for president. In the last quarter of 2016, around the time of the election, reports of hate crimes rose by 25 percent over the same period in 2015.

The day after the election, someone walked into Trident Technical College’s Mount Pleasant campus and carved “black lives don’t matter" and "white power" into the men’s bathroom stalls. School spokesman David Hansen said the vandalism shouldn't have been reported as a hate crime.

But activists like Rose, the Anti-Defamation League official, said graffiti and vandalism can prove serious when it's directed at a person.

In Horry County last year, a frightened black woman reported in April that someone had scratched “KKK” and “black” into her Cadillac.

A Darlington County man the same month told police that unknown suspects had spray-painted gay slurs on his car and did other damage totaling $19,000. Sheriff's Lt. Robby Kilgo said “very little” was done with the case after deputies failed to follow up and later left the agency.

Rose said the five states without their own hate crime laws need to push legislation that would beef up tracking of the problem and better educate authorities of its seriousness.

A current legislative proposal has not advanced in the state's General Assembly.

“It's really time,” she said, “for South Carolina to join the rest of the nation.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the quick response team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.