At a time when African Americans and LGBT people face increasing violence, police and activists warn that false reports of hate do real damage.
While such hoaxes are rare, they say, each one diverts resources from actual victims, sows doubt about legitimate attacks, and gives material to those who would minimize the threat of hate in the United States.
"Bogus police reports cause real harm," Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told reporters Thursday.
"Empire" actor Jussie Smollett, who is black and gay, is accused of paying two men to attack him last month in what police say was a ploy to raise his profile because he was unhappy with his salary.
Smollett, 36, is now charged with disorderly conduct, a Class 4 felony that carries a sentence of up to three years in prison.
NAACP spokesman Malik Russell said the allegations against Smollett should not be used as a "smokescreen" to obscure real racism in the United States.
"We don’t want this to be an opportunity for individuals who support racism to push this issue under the bus," Russell told USA Today. "Issues that impact communities of color are not always taken seriously."
Eugene O'Donnell is a former New York City police officer and prosecutor. He warned that a false claim can "dramatically undermine the next legitimate victim."
"The danger in a case like this is people who think that hate crimes are a fantasy will see this and think that this a representative incident," O'Donnell said.
The reality, he said, is that "there are far more hate crimes in the country than ever make it onto a police blotter."
Peter Scharf, a criminologist at Louisiana State University, warned that the Smollett controversy could discourage real victims from reporting to police.
“Some cases will never get reported because you’re afraid of getting exposed and punished," Scharf said. "People are actually victimized by hate crimes and keep silent."
Reports of violence against African Americans and LGBT people have grown, according to the FBI.
Hate crime reports motivated by sexual orientation rose 5 percent in 2017, the most recent year for which FBI data is available. Reports of hate crimes against black people rose 16 percent.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs counted 52 hate-related homicides against people who identify as LGBTQ in 2017, the most it has recorded in a single year. Sixty percent of the victims were black.
False claims of serious crimes are rare, but there have been some prominent examples.
Rolling Stone magazine published an article in 2014 detailing the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia freshman at a fraternity house.
Other media organizations followed up but found problems with the magazine's claims. Police in Charlottesville investigated and said they found no evidence of a sexual assault. Rolling Stone apologized and retracted the article.
In 2006, a black student at North Carolina Central University accused three white members of the Duke University men's lacrosse team of rape at a party at which she was working as a stripper. The players were charged with kidnapping, rape and sexual assault.
The players had alibis, the accuser changed her story several times, a fellow stripper at the party rejected her claims and the charges eventually were withdrawn. Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong eventually was removed from office and disbarred for allegedly withholding evidence that would have acquitted the players.
Smollett told police that two masked men shouted racial and homophobic slurs at him, beat him, wrapped a rope around his neck and poured bleach on him.
Police say he paid two Nigerian brothers $3,500 to stage the attack – and told them to say "MAGA," for "Make America Great Again," the slogan popularized by President Donald Trump.
Johnson, the Chicago police superintendent, said he was concerned that future reports of hate will now be met with greater skepticism.
"I'm left hanging my head and asking, 'Why?" said Johnson, who is black. "Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations?"
Civil rights groups say false reports undermine their efforts to defend real victims.
"It’s unfortunate if anyone, especially someone with this large of a platform, would falsify any parts of a story of hate violence," the New York City Anti-Violence Project said in a statement. "Still, the reality is that far too many survivors aren’t believed and don’t get justice for the violence they experience."
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, called the allegations against Smollett "both devastating & frustrating."
"But I want to ask everyone feeling angry, hurt & disappointed to channel that into productive activism," he tweeted, "because there are thousands targeted by hate violence each year who need our help."
Contributing: Alia E. Dastagir, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jussie Smollett hate attack claim: 'Bogus police reports cause real harm,' police say