Empire star Jussie Smollett was indicted on Friday by a Chicago-area grand jury for 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct, after filing what police are calling a falsified report of a possible hate crime.
Chicago police had already arrested Smollett last month and charged him with one count of falsifying a police report, but the Cook County grand jury on Friday counted each part of his story separately — meaning that the actor could face up to 64 years in prison if convicted, with each of the 16 charges carrying a possible sentence that ranges from probation to four years in jail.
In January, Smollett was hospitalized after telling police he was the victim of a racist and homophobic hate crime, in which the perpetrators had placed a noose around his neck and poured chemicals on him. After the story grabbed headlines around the country, Chicago Police arrested Smollett in February, after concluding that he had staged the incident because he was unhappy with his salary on Empire, the Fox drama. Two brothers who were initially arrested by Chicago police in connection with the incident said they were paid $3,500 by Smollet to stage the attack.
In a statement last month, Smollett remained adamant about his story’s truth and denied he played any role in the attack. “Despite my frustrations and deep concern with certain inaccuracies and misrepresentations that have been spread, I still believe justice will be served,” he said. On Friday, Smollet’s attorney told People Magazine that the “indictment is nothing more than a desperate attempt to make headlines.”
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told CNN’s Don Lemon that they gave Smollett the benefit of the doubt until the evidence suggested otherwise. “A lot of these things will come out in court… we classified him as a victim all the way of up until the 47th hour,” Johnson said.
Regardless of the outcome of the case, Smollett’s situation speaks to a much larger discussion: whether or not people believe that hate crimes are a common occurrence in the United States.
Even if Smollett’s case was staged, the vast majority of hate crimes are not — and “the fact that one well-publicized report turned out to be false shouldn’t distract from the scope of the problem”:
The FBI publishes a national analysis on hate crimes, based on police reports, each year — concluding that there were more than 7,100 in 2017, up 17 percent from the year before. That’s nearly 20 hate crimes a day.
This likely understates the number of hate crimes in the US. When the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) surveyed large segments of the population between 2004 and 2015, it concluded that there are 250,000 hate crimes annually. The FBI, in other words, may be undercounting the number of hate crimes by the hundreds of thousands.
That’s backed up by outside research as well: As ProPublica’s DocumentingHate project has pointed out, more than half of hate crime victims do not report to the police. The Baltimore Sun found that in some areas law enforcement only sent verified reports to the FBI, ignoring incidents in which the alleged perpetrator could not be found. And BuzzFeed News found that close to 90 percent of law enforcement agencies that submit data to the FBI claim there are no hate crimes in their cities.
While Smollett’s case makes waves, the day-to-day reality of communities that are impacted hate crimes will continue regardless — and more often than not, without coverage.