WASHINGTON — A pair of Asian American lawmakers are pressing the Justice Department to speed up implementation of provisions in a new federal law combating hate crimes, citing a recent FBI report showing the highest number of bias attacks in the United States in two decades.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., co-sponsors of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act that took effect in May, warned Attorney General Merrick Garland in a letter Monday that public fatigue and frustration with coronavirus restrictions and public safety mandates could lead to another spike in “hate-based violence.”
The lawmakers called their legislation — which aims to expedite the Justice Department’s reviews of purported hate crimes reported to the federal government — a first step in addressing the matter. But they said the agency must pay close attention to other aspects of the bill, including bolstering efforts from states and localities to report and investigate hate crimes and to create public information campaigns encouraging victims to come forward.
“Full implementation of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act will help stem the tide against further violence,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, a copy of which was shared with The Washington Post.
Justice officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawmakers’ letter came days after the FBI confirmed revised data from the state of Ohio that pushed the number of hate crimes reported nationwide in 2020 to 8,240 — the most since 2001 and third-highest total since the FBI began compiling the data in the early 1990s. (The FBI in August announced a total of 7,759 attacks last year, then increased its tally after The Post reported Ohio had initially underreported because of a technical glitch.)
The national jump in hate crimes was driven largely by a spike in attacks targeting Black and Asian people, according to the FBI data. Asian American groups have said a public backlash against China over the origins of the coronavirus, including xenophobic rhetoric from former president Donald Trump, has contributed to attacks on Asians in the United States.
Justice Department officials expressed urgency in implementing the new law and taking additional steps Garland mandated last spring. Garland appointed Rachel Rossi, a deputy associate attorney general, as the department’s hate crimes coordinator, and named Jim Felte, chief of the department’s civil rights division’s criminal section, to oversee the expedited reviews of purported hate crimes, as mandated in the new law.
“We know well that hate is on the rise and one of the greatest threats we face in our country today,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in a webinar with community advocates last week, according to notes from a person who participated. She said the agency has prosecuted 17 individuals on federal hate crime charges this year.
On the call, which included Rossi and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff, Clarke expressed alarm over the FBI data. But she also emphasized the need for better accounting from state and local law enforcement agencies.
In 2020, the number of agencies that participated in the FBI’s reporting effort fell for at least the second consecutive year — to 15,136, which is 422 fewer than in 2019. Of agencies that did participate, more than 12,000 reported no hate crimes, Clarke said.
“The lack of accurate hate crimes data inhibits the ability of law enforcement to address and prevent hate crimes,” she told the community advocates.
Rossi said on the call that the FBI has elevated hate crimes to the highest level of national threat priority, increasing resources to its 56 field offices, and is conducting conferences with local law enforcement agencies to help improve training and data collection.
She said the Justice Department has added information on how to report attacks to its website in seven languages, and will soon add 10 more. New federal grant programs will target local jurisdictions that have failed to report hate crimes over the past three years, Rossi added.
Advocates cautioned that it is too early to judge the potential impact of the new policies.
“They want to have sustained dialogue,” said Cynthia Choi, co-director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, who participated in the webinar. “But in terms of real changes and real reforms, that remains to be seen.”
In their letter, Hirono and Meng praised Garland’s initial efforts but said the law requires his agency to do more to encourage localities to create online reporting portals for hate-related incidents as well as attacks. They pointed to data collection efforts from community groups including Stop AAPI Hate, which tallied more than 9,000 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 through June 2021.
The majority of those incidents were related to verbal harassment and shunning, with physical assault comprising about 14%, the group said.
“While these actions are unlikely to rise to the level of a hate crime, the impetus for these actions are the same — fear and xenophobia,” the lawmakers wrote to Garland. “In order to meaningfully address the root causes of this bias and hostility, we need a clear and full picture of the scope of the problem. Data on hate crimes alone is insufficient.”