NEW YORK — The surveillance video captures a brutal scene: A woman is thrown down a flight of stairs and smacks into the subway platform violently enough to fracture a bone in her face. It was May 28, and the woman, in her 60s, was among dozens of people attacked during a spate of anti-Asian violence this year.
It may not even have been the first such attack by the suspect, John Chappell, a law enforcement official said. Two months earlier, Chappell, who had dozens of prior arrests, had been suspected of lighting an Asian woman’s backpack on fire, the official said. He was released just days after his arrest in May.
Six months into a series of brutal attacks on people of Asian descent across the city, Chappell’s case underscores the challenges police and prosecutors have faced in both preventing the violence and punishing the perpetrators.
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Many of the attacks are unpredictable and carried out by people in the throes of mental health episodes, seemingly at random. Officials say they doubt many of the hate crime charges related to the attacks will stick in court, and those arrested are often released quickly. And the Police Department appears to have scaled back its efforts to stop them: An undercover unit intended to prevent anti-Asian attacks has not been active since May after officers faced threats of violence themselves.
But the attacks have continued, and anxiety and trauma still grip many pockets of the city’s Asian communities, where the violence feels fresh even as the spotlight on it has dimmed.
“There’s still this fear that permeates throughout the community,” said Chung Seto, a community leader and political strategist in Chinatown. For many, she said, the fear feels like a continuation of the darkest days of 2020, when city residents feared going outside because of the coronavirus.
Now, shop owners in Seto’s neighborhood remain fearful of staying open late, and elders — including Seto’s parents — will not venture outside.
“It’s not so much catching COVID,” Seto said. “There’s no vaccine for racism.”
Attacks on Asian Americans have shaken cities around the country: In Los Angeles, hate crimes against Asian Americans more than doubled in the last year, and in Boston, Asian American elders are learning how to defend themselves with canes. For New York, the problem endures as the city forges ahead with its reopening and visitors once again wander the streets of Chinatown — and many living in the neighborhood say they feel left behind.
But for New York’s police, stopping the attacks before they happen is particularly difficult — even when the alleged perpetrator has dozens of prior arrests. And even when arrests are made, the alleged attackers are often released pending trial, corrections records show. Chappell, for example, was released just a few days after his arrest, despite prosecutors seeking high bail.
“It’s nice to know there’s a task force. It’s nice to go on the bus, and there’s this messaging of anti-Asian hate crimes,” said Kevin Nadal, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But what does that actually do?”
The challenges continue even as anti-Asian violence keeps rising: As of June 27, reported hate crimes against Asian New Yorkers had increased by 400% compared with the same time frame in 2020, from 21 to 105, according to Police Department statistics. The psychological effects of that violence has scarred entire communities.
In South Brooklyn, where a community senior center just reopened after closing for the pandemic, Don Lee, a community organizer, said Asian elders have been hesitant to travel to and from its programs.
“There are people who are excited to come back but we know many of the seniors don’t feel safe to come out,” Lee said. “The fear’s still very real.”
Lee said he knew firsthand that some victims of harassment and hate crimes were no longer reporting the incidents to police because they believed nothing meaningful would be done with their case.
“What is the point, right? What is the point?” Lee said. “I don’t think it’s the police. I think it’s the system.”
Law enforcement officials and experts note that it can be difficult to prosecute cases as hate crimes, which require proving the defendant’s intent was based on the victim’s race or ethnicity. In previous years, many suspects might have been arrested on assault or harassment charges, without a hate crime designation.
“The public is seeing this rash of attacks on Asian Americans, and it is possible that there is a trend happening because of racial animus,” said Alissa Heydari, a former assistant district attorney in New York City who now helps direct the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But to prove it in court, when the criminal standard is beyond a reasonable doubt, it is really hard to show that a victim was picked in large part because of their ethnicity or gender.”
The attacks, many of which have been recorded on video and shared widely, shocked the conscience of the city. Groups of volunteers now patrol the streets of Chinatown, hoping to deter potential attacks. Many Asian New Yorkers say they no longer leave home without pepper spray, or established buddy systems.
In March, the Police Department cobbled together a volunteer group of Asian American officers who work during their time off hoping to stop attacks if they see them happening — including a pilot program where undercover officers wandered streets where anti-Asian violence had taken place and was thought to likely reoccur.
The plainclothes officers were meant to both lure potential offenders into confrontation, and intervene if they saw anti-Asian harassment occurring. But the undercover strategy left officers in tenuous positions, and some were nearly attacked, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the matter.
In one instance, an undercover officer, who is of Asian descent, was approached by a man on a train platform in Queens. The man waved his hand and hat in the officer’s face, and allegedly said, “That’s why you peoples are getting beat up.” He was charged with aggravated harassment as a hate crime in April.
Another officer was approached by a man in midtown Manhattan, who shouted anti-Asian slurs at him, and allegedly said, “Go back to China before you end up in the graveyard,” using an expletive. He was also charged with harassment and menacing as a hate crime.
Though it has decreased the use of undercover officers, the Police Department continues to maintain a hate crimes task force that specifically deals with anti-Asian incidents. From March 1 to March 30, for example, that group made 27 arrests in attacks or harassment against Asian American victims in the city — 22 of them were recorded as hate crimes within the Police Department.
And, in 23 of those 27 incidents, the suspect had previously encountered law enforcement because they appeared to be having a mental health episode, according to statistics provided by the police. As in Chappell’s case, many of those 27 incidents involve the same alleged offenders. One suspect was responsible for four separate incidents, police said.
Stewart Loo, a deputy inspector who led the task force for its first 10 months of existence, said the unit did not solely investigate hate crimes. The 25 detectives involved also provided help to other units when they investigated crimes that involved Asian victims who did not speak fluent English.
Loo, who stepped down this spring citing personal reasons, said that leading the task force had been demanding. He and the group’s other members were not paid for the volunteer hours they put in — instead, they worked their normal shifts in addition to their work with the force.
For those who work and live in neighborhoods like Manhattan’s Chinatown, it is tempting to see the city’s recovery and assume the worst is over. Md Ali, 31, said he had sometimes been nervous in the spring and in the height of the pandemic, but his souvenir shop at Mott and Bayard Streets was near a police precinct, so he felt safe.
“Business picked back up a little bit,” he said. “If it stays like this, maybe we can survive.”
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