Tommy Lau, a Chinese-American bus driver in New York City, was walking during his lunch break in Brooklyn last month when he noticed a man harassing an older Asian couple.
Mr. Lau, 63, stood in front of the man to ask what he was doing. The man, Donovan Lawson, spat at Lau and punched him in the face, calling it an anti-Chinese insult, prosecutors said. Mr. Lawson, who is black, was arrested and charged with a hate crime.
It was the 33rd arrest of Mr. Lawson, 26, who is homeless and mentally ill, authorities said. Four times, officers had been called in to help him because he appeared to be suffering a mental breakdown and was being monitored for treatment in a mental health program run by the Police Department.
It’s not the only one. Many of the people recently accused of anti-Asian attacks in New York City have also had a history of mental health episodes, multiple arrests, and homelessness, complicating the search for an effective response in the city.
The pattern has revealed gaps in the criminal justice system’s ability to respond effectively when racial bias overlaps with mental illness, even as the city has stepped up enforcement efforts against these crimes.
For example, Lawson was one of at least seven people arrested after attacks on residents of Asian cities in the last two weeks of March, which resulted in a horrific attack on a Filipino-American woman, who was repeatedly kicked in broad daylight. day in Manhattan by a man who police say was homeless and on probation after serving a prison sentence for killing his mother.
Of the seven people arrested, five had had previous encounters with the police during which they were deemed “emotionally disturbed,” the police language for someone believed to need psychiatric help. The researchers believed that the remaining two also had signs of mental illness.
Authorities say those arrested are part of a population of mentally unstable people who are in and out of jail on minor charges and all too often do not receive the psychiatric care they need. Many also struggle with drug addiction.
Dermot F. Shea, the New York Police Commissioner, said in a television interview on Friday that “there were always arrests prior to these tragic and tragic incidents, and we must address this piece of mental illness.”
So far, police have received reports of at least 35 anti-Asian hate crimes in New York this year, already surpassing the 28 reported for all of last year, and far more than the three reported in 2019, police said.
Attacks on Asian Americans began to increase across the country last year when the pandemic broke out and former President Donald J. Trump called the disease the “Chinese virus” and the “Kung flu” in an effort to blame China for the catastrophe.
Law enforcement officials said Trump’s rhetoric provided ammunition for people who scapegoated Asian Americans for spreading the virus, exacerbating racial tensions and provoking unprovoked attacks and harassment.
At the same time, the pandemic strained a criminal justice system that has long struggled to provide treatment for people with mental illnesses who break the law. Social services reduced in-person meetings. Unemployment skyrocketed. The number of homeless single adults reached record levels.
“People’s fuses were much shorter,” said Karen Friedman Agnifilo, a former high-ranking official in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. “If you were an angry and hateful person, it seems like it didn’t take much to piss you off.”
Hate crime incidents in New York generally tend to rise after divisive news events, experts in such prosecutions said, with most stemming from impromptu clashes. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, American Muslims were the target. After the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, anti-Semitic attacks increased.
State prison officials said they were unable to release information about the health history of Brandon Elliot, the man arrested in connection with the March 29 brutal attack on the Filipino woman in Manhattan, due to privacy laws.
But police had been called in to help Mr. Elliot with a mental health episode in 2002, a few months before he stabbed his mother to death in front of his 5-year-old sister, according to a law enforcement official.
Questions have been raised as to whether Mr. Elliot, who is Black, had been adequately supervised after being released on parole. Elliot, 38, lived in a hotel in Midtown Manhattan that has been serving as a shelter for the homeless, police said. Other residents said his behavior was sometimes erratic.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week that Elliot’s case highlighted a widespread problem. The state releases people from prison to the city “no plan, no home, no job, no mental health support,” he said.
In a statement, the New York State Department of Corrections said each person released from prison has an individual treatment and rehabilitation plan and the mayor “was clearly not informed.” The Legal Aid Society, which represents Mr. Elliot, urged the public to “reserve judgment until all the facts are presented in court.”
In the short term, the city has responded to the rise in anti-Asian attacks with more diligence. The Police Department has dispatched undercover plainclothes officers to neighborhoods with large Asian populations and encouraged more victims to come forward.
But tackling the role of mental illness in such crimes is also critical, criminologists say, and the city lacks a strong safety net for people who frequently come in contact with law enforcement and mental health professionals. .
“The system is so broken that someone can be handcuffed and taken to the hospital and back on the street in a matter of a few hours,” said Kevin Nadal, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Mr. de Blasio said that only a small number of people with mental illness commit acts of violence and that the city aggressively follows up with those who have a documented history of both.
Research has shown that people with mental illness are not more likely to commit crimes than other people and are more vulnerable to becoming victims, said Katherine L. Bajuk, a mental health attorney with the New York County Defense Service.
A torrent of hatred and violence against people of Asian descent in the United States began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Background: Community leaders say the intolerance was fueled by President Donald J. Trump, who frequently used racist language like “Chinese virus” to refer to the coronavirus.
- Data: The New York Times, using media reports from across the country to capture a sense of the rising tide of anti-Asian prejudice, found more than 110 episodes since March 2020 in which there was clear evidence of hate based on the race.
- Underreported Hate crimes: The count may be only a small part of the violence and harassment given the general underestimation of hate crimes, but the broad survey captures episodes of violence across the country that grew in number amid Trump’s comments.
- In New York: A wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic consequences of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say the authorities are ignoring the racist attacks.
- What happened in Atlanta: Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta on March 16. The motives of the suspect, who has been charged with murder, are under investigation, but Asian communities in the United States are on alert. due to an increase in attacks against Asian Americans over the past year.
The fact that some of the people arrested in recent incidents against Asians had a history of instability has brought little comfort to the victims.
Lau, the bus driver in Brooklyn, said in an interview that he believed the hit he received from Lawson had its roots in a “collapse in mental health problems.”
Still, he said, the insult Lawson had used fit into a pattern of racism he has experienced since childhood, when his elementary school teacher called him Tommy instead of his first name, Kok Wah, to prevent his classmates from they will mock him.
“That’s what happens when you’re Asian, always being harassed by others,” Lau said. “The pandemic made it worse.”
Regina Lawson, Lawson’s sister, said he showed signs of mental illness at a young age and received therapy until he grew up and his mother could no longer force him to go. The brothers are now separated.
“There could definitely be a better way to deal with someone other than to wait until they commit a serious crime or actually hurt someone to get support,” Ms. Lawson said.
The problem of mental illness among homeless people like Lawson has worsened during the pandemic, as the city moved thousands of people from shelters to hotel rooms to slow the spread of the coronavirus, shelter providers said. . The move has isolated some people with mental illness, leaving them with less supervision.
A homeless man accused of a recent hate crime against Asians, Eric Deoliveira, 27, had 13 prior calls for emotional disturbances and at least a dozen arrests, police said.
On March 21, police said, Deoliveira, who is Hispanic, beat a Chinese-American mother in Manhattan and broke the sign she was carrying after a rally to protest violence against Asians.
On Saturday night, Deoliveira, who had been released after the assault charge, was arrested again in Queens and charged with breaking the windshield of a police car, prosecutors said. An attorney for Deoliveira did not respond to a request for comment.
Mental fitness has already become a legal problem in some cases. Last month, a judge ordered a mental health evaluation for Ruddy Rodriguez, 26, who was arrested and charged with hitting an Asian man on the back of the head in Manhattan while swearing at the Chinese.
Prosecutors said that Mr. Rodríguez, who is black and Hispanic, told investigators after his arrest: “I hit him. I don’t like Asians. I get into disputes with them. “He is also said to have told a police officer:” I am going to kill all the Asians when I get out of here. “
During Mr. Rodríguez’s arraignment, he frequently interrupted proceedings and denied the allegations, according to a court transcript. Prosecutors said he had been arrested in January after he broke a glass door at a homeless shelter in Manhattan and threatened to kill the site coordinator.
An attorney for Rodríguez did not respond to a request for comment.
Michael Gold contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill and Kitty Bennett contributed research.