Police in Georgia arrested Robert Aaron Long, 21, on Tuesday after he allegedly opened fire at three massage spas and killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent.
The murders sent a chilling message to Asian Americans across the country who have been enduring heightened race-based violence, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic began. There were nearly 4,000 incidents of anti-Asian racism reported in the last year, and many believe Tuesday’s shootings are just the most violent and disturbing recent example of hate crimes targeting this community.
But law enforcement officials insisted Wednesday that it was “too early” to determine whether the shootings were racially motivated, and said Long had told investigators he targeted the spas in order to “take out” the “temptation” from his “sexual addiction” issue.
“He was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did,” Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Capt. Jay Baker said Wednesday.
The statement angered lawmakers, activists, celebrities and members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, who said that claim diminishes the role of racism and misogyny in the murders. The same officer was later found to have promoted merchandise last year that demonized the Asian community in relation to COVID-19.
Yet law enforcement’s statements in Georgia only serve as a reminder of the failures of the American criminal justice system, specifically when it comes to how equipped police departments are to properly investigate crimes that stem from race-based bias and hatred. Police are often reluctant or outright refuse to link crimes to racial animus, which only further traumatizes people in the targeted community.
“Law enforcement has to be able to look at ... not only tensions in their local community and outreach to those communities, but when there’s some catalytic, more broad event, whether it’s the pandemic, or perceived terror attack, or something else, to be able to reach out to those communities really in real time,” said Brian Levin, director at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and a professor of criminal justice at the California State University, San Bernardino.
From Line Officers To Federal Agencies
Georgia did not even have a functioning hate crime law until recently. Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed the legislation into law in June 2020, weeks after armed white men pursued and shot Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging, in what many called a modern-day lynching.
The state actually had a hate crime law on the books before that, but the Georgia Supreme Court overturned it in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague.”
The new law allows for additional penalties to be imposed in crimes motivated by a victim’s race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or other factors. The law also mandates that members of law enforcement collect and report data on hate crimes they investigate.
Before Kemp signed the law, Georgia was one of only four U.S. states without a hate crimes law. The lack of hate crime documentation and reporting in police departments in Georgia and other states means that law enforcement is likely unfamiliar with how to handle routine incidents, let alone violent ones like what took place on Tuesday.
Jeannine Bell, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, told HuffPost that it was crucial for authorities to rethink how they view hate crimes in order to understand their impact.
“To think of them as special protection for minorities is just a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which hate crime operates,” said Bell.
Even if the authorities do have resources and designated departments to investigate hate crimes, oftentimes those same authorities are trained, especially in homicide cases, to look at perpetrators rather than at their motives from the very beginning of a crime. Motives are usually an afterthought.
High Bar To Prosecute
The Justice Department defines a federal hate crime as a crime “motivated by bias against a race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.” A hate or bias incident, however, is defined as an act of prejudice that does not involve violence, threats, or property damage and is not necessarily a crime.
Law enforcement agencies across the U.S. report data on hate crimes annually, but doing so is only voluntary. That means statistics are incomplete. And state laws against hate crimes vary widely, resulting in unequal protections for similar violent crimes in different jurisdictions. Depending on the state, hate crimes can either be classified as an independent offense or used to enhance the penalty of another criminal act ― assault, murder, etc. In Georgia, vandalism to a place of worship is considered an independent offense, but under the new 2020 law, a hate crime enhancer can be added to a crime that involves biases or prejudice.
While police officers can investigate whether hate was a motivator in a crime, prosecutors may not want to bring hate crime charges because of the high level of proof required.
“Prosecutors have to establish beyond a reasonable doubt, that every element of a crime ... must be established unanimously [regarding] the intentional selection, or the discriminatory selection of victims, and that’s very difficult to achieve,” said Levin.
When prosecutors are discouraged from bringing hate crime charges against a defendant, it sends a message to authorities down the chain, who then become unmotivated to investigate bias in a crime.
“It’s not just cops who are hesitant. Judges are legit hesitant. Prosecutors are really hesitant, and they’re the individuals with the most power in these cases, and they are hesitant to charge hate crime cases,” said Bell. “So law enforcement officers are getting a signal from people in the justice system who have lots of power.”
When those crimes don’t get processed as hate crimes, the domino effect continues. The lack of prosecuted crimes leads to an issue with the categorization of crimes, and subsequently, the undercount of hate crimes both at the state and federal levels.
Further complicating the matter, depending on the state, an additional hate crime enhancer or charge may not significantly impact the outcome or sentencing of a case, explained Levin, especially if a perpetrator has already received a maximum sentence, leaving prosecutors less likely to pursue them.
One week after his inauguration, President Joe Biden issued a memorandum denouncing racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. and issued guidance on how to better collect data and assist with the reporting of anti-Asian hate incidents. Despite collecting data since 1990, the FBI’s data on hate crimes remains inconsistent and largely undercounted.
“Prosecutors may not be terribly interested in them because they don’t have a high offense level, but someone scrawls a slur on your home … you deserve to have the state, say ‘hey, that was the wrong thing to do, we’re gonna punish that, and we’re gonna punish it in a way that’s public and embarrassing for the person who did it,’’ said Bell.
Regaining Trust In Impacted Communities
Even with its challenges, both Bell and Levin agree that it is incumbent for the criminal justice system as a whole — from the FBI to the state and local police departments — to document, train, categorize and prosecute hate crime cases.
That requires the parties involved to look beyond the facts of a specific case and be proactive about marginalized communities enduring incidents of hate, especially at a time where trust between minority communities and law enforcement is fragile.
“It’s very important to stress that hate crimes aren’t just about minorities. Anyone who has a race can be the victim of a hate crime” said Bell.
Even if a police department is not investigating whether a crime was hate-motivated, or the available facts do not satisfy the legal requirements of a hate crime, that does not automatically mean that bias played no role, which is a crucial element for a targeted community to heal.
“Impacted communities want some kind of not only validation of their fears, but also a concrete understanding that the authorities are looking at possible hate crime angles,” said Levin.
In this case, Levin and Bell said that the Georgia police should not rule out a hate crime, especially in the early stages of an investigation.
For those in communities targeted by race-based violence, Wednesday’s press conference was reminiscent of the aftermath of the 2015 murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina. Immediately after the killings, police framed the crime as a parking dispute.
Family members of the victims and activists across the country protested that narrative, which several media outlets also picked up, and said it made it harder to achieve justice for the victims. Law enforcement eventually walked back their statements, acknowledging the role of bias, and the district attorney recognized the perpetrator’s anti-Muslim, anti-religion hate. But family members said it was too little, too late, and that it downplayed the dangers of Islamophobia.