The New York Times
He was indicted in an anti-Asian attack. It was his 33rd arrest.
NEW YORK – 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. Lau, 63, came to the man to ask him what he was doing. The man, Donovan Lawson, spat at Lau and punched him in the face, calling him an anti-Chinese insult, prosecutors said. Lawson, who is black, was arrested and charged with a hate crime. It was the 33rd arrest of 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 in a state of mental depression and was undergoing treatment under a mental health program run by the police department. Sign up for The Morning New York Times newsletter It’s not unique. Many people recently accused of anti-Asian attacks in New York City have also had histories of mental health episodes, multiple arrests and homelessness, complicating the city’s search for an effective response. The model revealed gaps in the ability of the criminal justice system to respond effectively when racial biases overlap with mental illness, even as the city has stepped up its law enforcement efforts against these crimes. For example, Lawson was one of at least seven people arrested after attacks on residents of the Asian city in the last two weeks of March, ending in a gruesome attack on a Filipina, who was repeatedly beaten. in broad daylight in Manhattan by a police man. dire was homeless and on parole after serving time in jail for killing his mother. Of the seven people arrested, five had previous encounters with police in which they were seen as “emotionally disturbed,” police language for someone suspected of needing psychiatric help. Investigators believed the other two also showed signs of mental illness. Officials say those arrested are part of a population of mentally unstable people who cycle in and out of jail on minor charges and who too often do not get the psychiatric attention they need. Many are also struggling with drug addiction. Dermot F. Shea, the New York City Police Commissioner, said in a television interview on Friday that there were “always arrests before these tragic and tragic incidents, and we need to tackle this mental illness problem. “. Police have so far received reports of at least 35 anti-Asian hate crimes in New York this year, already exceeding the 28 reported all last year, and many more than the three reported in 2019. police said. Attacks on Asian Americans began to increase across the country last year as the pandemic raged and former President Donald Trump used racist slurs for the disease in an attempt to blame China for disaster. Law enforcement officials have said Trump’s rhetoric has provided ammunition to those who have scapegoated Asian Americans for spreading the virus, exacerbating racial tensions and sparking attacks and harassment not provoked. At the same time, the pandemic has strained a criminal justice system that has long struggled to provide treatment for people with mental illness who break the law. Social services have reduced face-to-face meetings. Unemployment has skyrocketed. The number of single homeless adults has reached record levels. “People’s fuses were much shorter,” said Karen Friedman Agnifilo, a former senior official in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. “If you were an angry person filled with hate, it seems like it didn’t take much to make you angry.” Hate crime incidents in New York generally tend to increase after divisive events, prosecution experts said, and most stem from spontaneous confrontations. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, American Muslims were targeted. After the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, anti-Semitic attacks increased. State prison officials said due to privacy laws they could not release information about the health history of Brandon Elliot, the man arrested in connection with the attack. March 29 brutal attack against Filipino women in Manhattan. But police were called in to help Elliot with a mental health episode in 2002, 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 Elliot, who is black, was properly supervised after he was released on parole. Elliot, 38, lived in a midtown Manhattan hotel that served as a homeless shelter, police said. Other residents said his behavior was at times erratic. Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week that Elliot’s case highlights a pervasive problem. The state releases people from prison to the city “without a plan, without housing, without work, without mental health support,” he said. In a statement, New York State Corrections said every person released from prison has an individual treatment and rehabilitation plan and the mayor was “clearly uninformed.” The Legal Aid Society, which represents 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 surge in anti-Asian attacks with more repression. The police department sent plainclothes officers to areas with high Asian populations and encouraged more victims to come forward. But dealing with the role of mental illness in such crimes is also critical, criminologists say, and the city does not have a strong safety net for people who frequently come into contact with law enforcement and law enforcement. mental health professionals. “The system is so flawed that someone can be handcuffed and taken to the hospital and be back on the streets in a matter of hours,” said Kevin Nadal, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. De Blasio said only a small number of people with mental illnesses commit violence, and the city is aggressively following up with those with a documented history of both cases. Research has shown that people with mental illness are no more likely to commit crimes than others and are more vulnerable to becoming victims, said Katherine L. Bajuk, mental health lawyer with the New York County Defender Service. . The fact that some of those arrested in recent anti-Asian incidents have a history of instability has come as little comfort to the victims. Lau, the Brooklyn bus driver, said in an interview that he believed the punch he took at Lawson was rooted in “a breakdown in mental health issues.” Yet, he said, the insult Lawson used matched a pattern of racism he had known from childhood, when his schoolteacher called him Tommy instead of his first name, Kok Wah, to prevent his classmates to make fun of him. “It’s like that when you’re Asian, always harassed by others,” Lau said. “The pandemic has made the situation worse.” Regina Lawson, Lawson’s sister, said he showed signs of mental illness at a young age and received therapy until he grew older and his mother could no longer force him to leave. The siblings are now separated. “There definitely could be a better way to deal with someone else than to wait until they’ve got a crime or really hurt someone to get their support,” said Regina Lawson. The problem of mental illness among homeless people like Donovan Lawson has been exacerbated during the pandemic as the city has moved thousands from shelters to hotel rooms to slow the spread of the coronavirus, providers said. shelter. The move isolated some people with mental illnesses, leaving them less supervised. A homeless man accused of a recent anti-Asian hate crime, Eric Deoliveira, 27, has already had 13 emotional disturbance calls and at least a dozen arrests, police said. On March 21, police said, Deoliveira, who is Hispanic, hit a Chinese-American mother in Manhattan and smashed the sign she was carrying after a rally to protest anti-Asian violence. On Saturday evening Deoliveira, who was released after the assault charge, was re-arrested in Queens and charged with smashing the windshield of a police patrol car, prosecutors said. A Deoliveira lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. Mental health has already become a legal issue in some cases. Last month, a judge ordered a mental health assessment of Ruddy Rodriguez, 26, who was arrested and charged with hitting an Asian man on the back of the head in Manhattan while saying an anti-Chinese curse . Prosecutors said Rodriguez, who is black and Hispanic, told investigators after his arrest: “I hit him. I don’t like Asians. I argue with them. He also allegedly told a policeman, “I will kill all the Asians when I get out of here.” During Rodriguez’s arraignment, he frequently interrupted proceedings and denied the allegations, according to a court transcript. Prosecutors said he was arrested in January after smashing a glass door at a Manhattan homeless shelter and threatening to kill the site coordinator. A lawyer for Rodriguez did not respond to a request for comment. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company