The New Covid-19 Hate Crimes Law Is Not Enough

It’s good as far as it goes, but fighting prejudice will require supporting the community groups deep in the trenches.

Over the last year and a half, the coronavirus hasn’t been the only epidemic ailing the United States. There has been a huge uptick in hate crimes, a disproportionate number of them directed at Asian Americans. Anti-Asian hate crimes reported to police increased by145 percent in more than a dozen of America’s largest cities from 2019 to 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. When the center compared the first quarter of 2021 to that of 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes spiked by 194 percent. Unfortunately, this is no surprise—a deadly effect of former president Donald Trump’s regular practice of whipping up his supporters over the “China virus.”

That’s why it was a welcome step when President Joe Biden recently signed the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act into law. The legislation ordered the Department of Justice to expedite the review of Covid-19 hate crimes, and provides grants and resources to incentivize law enforcement agencies to improve their investigation and reporting of hate crimes.

Despite widespread bipartisan support, the new law does not satisfy everyone, not the least, the populations targeted by the hate crime surge.

Activists are concerned that the law does little to address the root causes of anti-Asian bias and could lead to over policing and other unintended consequences. “The Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act further assumes that the police are safe, but we know that police are devastating and deadly for BIPOC, trans, undocumented, sex workers, and many other communities,” a statement signed by more than 100 Asian-American and LGBTQ organizations says.

Indeed, instead of ramping up law enforcement to tackle hate crimes—mainly by just giving these agencies more money— there are other solutions that could be even more effective, according to experts on the subject, such as imposing stricter hate crime-reporting mandates on local police departments and directing federal funding to community-based violence interrupter programs.

In fact, relying so much on law enforcement to combat prejudice-driven crimes hasn’t worked out well in the past. Even though the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 requires the FBI to collect data on crimes motivated by bias against protected groups, the yearly data is spotty and has major gaps, according to Steven M. Freeman, the vice president of civil rights and director of legal affairs at the Anti-Defamation League.

That’s because the FBI asks local law enforcement to collect and report this data, but thousands of agencies opt out—and among those that do cooperate, 86 percent reported that no hate crimes occurred in their jurisdiction in 2019. Alabama, for example, recorded zero hate crimes in 2018 and 2019.

Federal law should require local police to report hate crimes to the FBI. Without a clear sense of how widespread the problem is, it’s difficult to fully address it and know what resources are needed.

But there’s another issue: Many police agencies don’t know a hate crime when they see one, experts say. Only 12 states have laws that require police academies to provide instruction on hate crimes. “I think that there are a lot of agencies out there that, given that sort of education and that sort of awareness, would do a better job of reporting,” Freeman told me, “The first step to reporting, obviously, is understanding what you’re looking at.”

This is where legislation could also step in. Federal policy should make all police academies provide training on dealing with hate crimes. It should also create a uniform policy on identifying, investigating, and reporting such crimes. The latter idea is one of the proposals Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, is pushing. “There has to be a policy explaining what are the particular steps that officers must follow when there is a suspected hate crime, how that’s investigated and how it’s tabulated,” he said.

In other words, legislation shouldn’t merely give law enforcement more funding to do what they already should have been doing. It should enact stringent mandates. If police agencies don’t report hate crimes to the FBI, for instance, they should face repercussions such as losing federal funding.

“There’s no magic wand to legislate hate away,” said Freeman. It’s easy to miss out on the bigger picture when the focus is just on the laws, the enforcement of the laws and the data reporting, he said. “You need every tool. If you only look at it through hate crime laws, it’s too narrow a prism.”

Violence interruption programs can also help. These community-based programs treat violence as a public health problem.

Cure Violence, for instance, runs violence interruption programs across the U.S. and internationally. It uses methods associated with disease control, such as detecting and interrupting conflicts, identifying and treating high-risk individuals, and changing social norms to stop the spread of violence.

The first Cure Violence model implemented in Chicago in 2000, launched as Ceasefire, was a success. (The program was profiled in the 2011 documentary The Interrupters.) Independent evaluations of the program found that it led to reductions in shootings, killings, and other violence. Even so, Chicago’s program struggled with funding, losing all state backing from 2015 to 2017.

Funding has been a persistent problem for these programs nationwide, leading many to implement the program without relying on assistance from their state or city government.

Charles Ransford, the director of Science and Policy at Cure Violence, was recently in talks with the NYC Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes to launch a pilot that would use the violence interruption strategy to combat hate crimes in the city. He believes that hate, like violence, is contagious. Unfortunately, the proposal fell through when the pandemic struck last year.

“[America’s] very rarely invested in prevention,” Ransford told me. “So a lot of times, we’re judging prevention programs based on these poorly funded, bare minimum, sort of programs and approaches that just don’t really have the investment to make it work. [Conversely] we’re investing billions in policing.”

This is where the federal government can help, by giving these organizations the funding they need to maintain a consistent presence in their communities. These programs also fill in the gaps left by law enforcement, which can’t take action until a crime has been committed. “We can respond to things that aren’t crimes, but things that we know are going to lead to crimes,” said Ransford. “And if we can respond to those, then we can prevent that crime from happening potentially.”

Those include bias incidents that don’t pass the threshold of hate crime, but are much more common and can be an indicator of future hate crimes. According to 2020 data from Stop AAPI Hate, verbal harassment made up 70.9 percent of reported incidents, shunning or avoidance made up 21.4 percent, while episodes of assault comprised 8.7 percent.

After a hate incident is reported in New York City, for instance, the first point of contact for the community is often the NYC Human Rights Commission’s Bias Response Team, which focuses on supporting victims, including educating them on their rights.

In April, an elderly Filipina woman was brutally attacked in front of a luxury building in Hell’s Kitchen and the concierge closed the door on her without helping her, remembered Deputy Commissioner Kajori Chaudhuri, who oversees the Bias Response Team. Video of the incident quickly went viral, stoking fear among Asian Americans in the community. The team took swift action, going door to door to local businesses, the top location for discrimination incidents in America. They asked each owner whether they would put up posters of solidarity so Asian Americans could feel safe. More than 150 businesses agreed, said Chaudhuri, and they also pledged to take action if they saw a hate crime happening. “It was an example of the community coming together,” she said.

Of course, curbing hate crimes wouldn’t just help Asian Americans. It would benefit all groups, including Jewish Americans who have experienced a burst of attacks across the country over the last week.

Experts know that it will take systematic changes and won’t come from simply throwing more money into police departments. It will require tracking hate and sustaining the organizations that work at the grassroots to fight it.

“Prejudice,” said Levin, “is not just something you can arrest away.”

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Michelle Liu

Michelle Liu is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly.