Reports of hate crimes are on the rise in New Jersey after years of steady decline, according to new data released by the State Police.
The state's top law enforcement official alluded to President Donald Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric in a statement announcing the new stats, but acknowledged the rise could also be attributed to improved reporting practices in an area that has long suffered from a lack of reliable data.
There were 417 bias incident offenses reported by police agencies across the state in 2016, according to the new report, up 14 percent from the 367 reported in 2015.
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal told NJ Advance Media the 2017 numbers, which are still being reviewed, are expected to climb even higher.
"It's sad that we see bias incidents trending upward, but it's not surprising, given that we have political leaders in this country who encourage the expression of intolerance and hatred, or in other cases, ignore or countenance it," Grewal said in a statement accompanying the annual bias incident report.
Most troublingly, Grewal said, was that schools were the most frequent location of such crimes, representing 27 percent of the total.
"What we need to do, as individuals and as a society, is to push back against this prejudice," he said.
The newest report, which contains data through the end of 2016, found the groups most frequently targeted by bias crimes were black and Jewish New Jerseyans, who each represent about 30 percent of the total reported victims.
But it's difficult to attribute any single factor to the rise in reported incidents -- which mirrors a national spike reported by the FBI last year -- because of flaws in how such data is collected, experts say. While New Jersey has one of the better systems in the nation for tracking hate crimes, the data across the country is inconsistent and poorly vetted.
In an interview, the attorney general said there are likely several factors driving up New Jersey's numbers.
"The uptick, certainly, is reflective of increased incidents as we see this behavior become normalized and some of the rhetoric we're seeing nationally," Grewal said in an interview. "But it's also reflective of us better capturing data and encouraging reporting."
Officials similarly attributed a 43 percent spike in reported sex crimes in New Jersey in recent years to improvements in how police departments collected and reported data for such incidents.
Still, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics has said hate crimes are vastly underreported across the country.
State officials in New Jersey have been collecting such data since 1988.
NJ Advance Media has teamed up with ProPublica and dozens of other media partners on the Documenting Hate project, a bid to fill in the gaps in bias-crime reporting that exist across the nation.