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Feds announce expansion of Civil Rights unit to probe bias crimes, in the wake of Asian American attacks

Mark Lesko, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern

Mark Lesko, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Federal prosecutors on Long Island on Monday announced an expanded effort to investigate alleged hate crimes in the wake of an increase in violence targeting Asian Americans.

Acting U.S. Attorney Mark Lesko for the Eastern District — which covers Nassau, Suffolk, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island — said the office's existing Civil Rights Section will double in size as a result.

The section, which investigates and prosecutes alleged bias crimes as well as civil rights violations and sex trafficking, currently has three prosecutors assigned. An additional three prosecutors will be added, though more will be assigned on an as-needed basis.

"The spiking number of hate crimes directed at Asian Americans in this district and throughout the country runs contrary to deeply-held American values of fairness, respect and equal treatment for all without regard to ethnic origin," Lesko said in a statement.

"The additional resources allocated to the Civil Rights Section reflect the commitment of this office and its federal, state and local law enforcement partners to upholding these important and enduring values, which categorically reject hate, intolerance and the violence they spawn."

The announcement follows the March 16 mass shootings at Atlanta-area spas that left six women of Asian descent dead and comes just a week after Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini held a news conference to announce his office was launching a task force to handle bias crimes.

Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas established a hate crimes unit in 2017. Last year, it prosecuted 40 hate crime cases.

Law enforcement officials in New York City and California, areas with large Asian American communities, say they've seen a steep uptick in attacks on the communities, including violent assaults, as the coronavirus pandemic emerged. Critics have blamed former President Donald Trump, who referred to COVID-19 as the "China virus" for stoking anti-Asian sentiment.

The NYPD has recently reported a series of violent assaults that appeared to involve anti-Asian bias. The NYPD reported 28 hate crimes with Asians as victims in 2020, up from just three the previous year.

Police on Long Island have said they have not seen an uptick in the number of attacks on Asian Americans, although they acknowledged bias crimes against those of Asian descent are often underreported. Following the Atlanta spa killings, police on Long Island and in New York City boosted patrols in some areas.

Monday’s announcement was seen as "a step in the right direction" by some Long Islanders in the Asian American community.

David Rong, 47, of East Meadow, said the expansion was encouraging news but called for more. The former Bronx prosecutor and activist said there need to be "fully funded and dedicated hate crime detectives" in local police departments and "more dedicated prosecutors."

"When a hate crime comes in, they will have people who are experts in hate crimes and being able to prosecute [them]," said Rong, who is the lead pastor of Great Commission Bible Church in Jamaica.

Rong and others also stressed the need for more police officers and crime advocates who speak the languages of the Asian community and understand its history.

"You’ve got to know at least a little about the Asian American history going back to the 1800s with the Chinese Exclusion Act. You have to know the history and culture to determine the right strategy toward these hate crimes," said activist Peter Zhao, 40, of Westbury. "Hopefully this will bring in new staff, more capable people who can speak our language and more funds."

The head of the FBI in New York, William Sweeney, said of the EDNY’s expanded unit: "We can't investigate what we don't know, however, so I would urge anyone who has been the victim of a hate crime, or anyone who has witnessed a hate crime, to report this information to the FBI by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI or submitting a tip online at Victims should know that information may be reported anonymously and in their native language."

Peter Fitzhugh, the head of HSI in New York said in a statement: "Homeland Security Investigations is proud to join together with the FBI and the United States Attorney’s Office, EDNY, in combating the rising trend of Hate Crimes that we are seeing throughout our region. Every person should be free to live and worship as they wish without fear for repercussions or their safety."

With Dandan Zou

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