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LA Leaders Say Police Must Do A Better Job Of Handling Anti-Asian Hate Crimes

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Koreatown has been the site of attacks on Asian Americans during the pandemic, including last month's assault on a 27-year-old Korean American man. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)
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Early in the pandemic in Los Angeles, an elderly Korean woman who'd been verbally harassed and pelted with rocks in Koreatown went to her local police station to report the incident in her limited English.

But as the woman later told community advocates, police opted not to take a report and provided no follow-up or referrals to organizations that provide counseling or legal advice. A year later, the woman cries talking about the attack and sought counseling on her own, according to Connie Chung Joe, the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA.

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Connie Chung Joe, the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, asked police commissioners for improvements in how LAPD handles Asians targeted by verbal and physical assault. (Screen grab from March 2, 2021 L.A. Police Commission meeting )
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"When victims are brave enough to come forward and share their experiences with the police," Joe told the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners on Tuesday, "having the police say that nothing can be done discourages victims and their communities from relying on the police again, particularly for immigrant victims who face language and cultural barriers."

Verbal and physical attacks on Asian Americans have been taking place in Los Angeles for the last year, but recent violence against Asian elders captured on video around the country, and last month's assault in the heart of L.A.'s Koreatown on a 27-year-old Korean American man, now has leaders like the mayor and city attorney speaking more forcefully about the problem.

L.A. police commissioners spent more than an hour at their meeting Tuesday discussing anti-Asian incidents and taking input from civil rights leaders, who said officers needed to get better at recognizing hate crimes and being sensitive to victims but they also made clear they were not calling for more policing.

LAPD recorded 15 hate crimes against AAPI community members in 2020 -- up 114% from 2019. Three cases of anti-Asian hate crimes have been documented so far in 2021.

By contrast, civil rights organizations received reports of more than 100 incidents in L.A. between March and December of last year.

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Most of the incidents do not appear to meet the definition of a hate crime -- when a crime is shown to be motivated by some kind of bias. But community leaders worry that police are failing to identify the cases that do qualify as hate crimes, pointing to a 2018 state auditor's report that found the LAPD incorrectly labeled three out of 15 cases -- 20% -- as hate incidents rather than hate crimes.

"I would call on all officers to receive training continuously on how to identify when a crime rises to the level of hate crime and report it accordingly so that the public gets a full report on the severity of the problem," Joe said.

Community leaders say it's clear Asians are being targeted in LA more often than is reported to law enforcement -- which LAPD's Assistant Chief Office of Operations Beatrice Girmala acknowledged.

"We know that there are probably additional instances of hate crimes or hate incidents that are being committed," Girmala told the police commissioners Tuesday as she urged victims "to come forward out of the shadows" and make reports.

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LAPD's Assistant Chief Office of Operations Beatrice Girmala addresses the police commission on Asian hate incidents. (Screen grab from Zoom meeting of March 2, 2021 L.A. Police Commission meeting )
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But Michael Lawson, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League, said that the LAPD must convince the public that its officers do not themselves condone racist behavior, pointing to reports that some officers had shared a Valentine-themed meme with a photo of George Floyd and the words "You Take My Breath Away."

"I implore you to take action and make it clear to the officers and the citizens that you serve that this behavior is unacceptable and must stop," Lawson said.

Chief Michel Moore was missing from the meeting because he was in the hospital, but Girmala said that "with the George Floyd Valentine, when I had made a notification to (the chief) immediately, without a second of delay, that investigation was launched internally."

"When we talk about zero tolerance, we don't want (the officers involved) in our organization to shame the organization," Girmala said.

More Support for Victims, Not More Policing

Lawson and Joe spoke of solidarity between L.A.'s Asian and Black communities, with Joe saying she and her organization back the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to end police brutality and systemic racism.

"We are not advocating for more criminalization which we know disproportionately impacts certain communities," Joe said.

Instead, Joe asked the LAPD to work with the officers it has now and give them more training on how to better respond to incidents of hate, even if they are not hate crimes, and to keep track of them.

Joe cited the case of a Vietnamese American woman who was assailed by racial slurs last August at a restaurant in Pico-Union after rebuffing another patron's advances. Initially, police did not take a report, telling her no crime had been committed. After video she posted of the incident went viral, several other women came forward saying they had been verbally attacked by the same man.

Most of the 114 anti-Asian incidents in LA that were reported to the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center last year are not hate crimes, said Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of L.A.-based Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, which co-founded the tracker. But Kulkarni said many count as civil rights violations, with reports ranging from physical attacks to refusal of service and vandalism.

Women and the elderly are the most common targets, with perpetrators in hundreds of cases nationwide using racist rhetoric about the coronavirus popularized by President Trump.

In response to the civil rights leaders, LAPD's Girmala said she wanted to solicit resource lists from them, "refresh" hate crime training for officers and work with community groups to alleviate fears about attacks.

"This is not imagined," Girmala said to the commission. "I have to emphasize these are real anxieties that people are facing just to get to and from work and to and from their homes."

LA Police Commissioner William Briggs circled back to the elderly Korean American woman attacked in Koreatown and struggled with how the incident was categorized.

"For someone to actually throw rocks at another individual, I would just be baffled to know why that doesn't rise to the level of a hate crime versus a hate incident," Briggs said to Joe. "I think that underscores your point of more training for our officers to recognize this to, report it and to take these types of matter seriously."

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NOTE: Michael Lawson is a member of the Board of Trustees for Southern California Public Radio, which operates LAist and KPCC

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