New York Times
He was charged 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 last month during his lunch break in Brooklyn when he noticed a man harassing an elderly Asian couple. Lau, 63, stepped in front of the man to ask what he was doing. The man, Donovan Lawson, spat on Lau and punched him in the face, calling him an anti-Chinese slur, prosecutors said. Lawson, who is black, was arrested and charged with a hate crime. It was the 33rd arrest for Lawson, 26, who is homeless and mentally ill, authorities said. Four times, officers had been called to help him because he appeared to be in the grip of a mental breakdown, and he was monitored for treatment in a mental health program run by police. Sign up for The Morning Newsletter from the New York Times He is not unique. Many of the people recently accused of anti-Asian attacks in New York City have also had a history of episodes of mental health, multiple arrests and homelessness, complicating the city̵
7;s search for an effective response. The pattern has revealed gaps in the criminal justice system’s ability to respond effectively when racial prejudice overlaps with mental illness, even though the city has intensified its enforcement efforts against these crimes. For example, Lawson was one of at least seven people arrested after attacks on Asian city dwellers in the last two weeks of March, ending with a horrific attack on a Filipino woman who was repeatedly kicked in broad daylight in Manhattan by a man police say was homeless and on parole after serving a prison sentence for killing his mother. Of the seven people arrested, five had previous encounters with police where they were considered “emotionally disturbed”, police language used by someone believed to need psychiatric help. Investigators believed the remaining two also had signs of mental illness. Officials say the detainees are part of a population of mentally unstable people who cycle in and out of jail on minor charges and too often do not get the psychiatric attention they need. Many also struggle with substance abuse. Dermot F. Shea, New York City police chief, said in a television interview Friday that “there were always arrests prior to these tragic, tragic incidents, and we need to 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 throughout last year, and far more than the three reported in 2019, police said. Attacks on Asian Americans began to rise across the country last year as the pandemic raged, and former President Donald Trump used racist accusations of the disease in an attempt to blame China for the disaster. Law enforcement officials said Trump’s rhetoric provided ammunition for people who scorned Asian Americans for spreading the virus, exacerbating racial tensions and inciting unprovoked attacks and harassment. At the same time, the pandemic strained a criminal justice system that has long struggled to provide treatment to mentally ill people who break the law. Social services reduce personal encounters. Unemployment rose. The number of single homeless adults reached record levels. “People’s assurances 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 hatred, it seems like it didn’t take much to get you started.” Incidental crime incidents in New York generally tend to increase after divisive news events, experts said of such prosecutions, and most stem from immediate confrontations. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, Muslim Americans were targeted. After the White Nationalist Meeting in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, anti-Semitic attacks increased. State prison officials said they could not release information about Brandon Elliot’s health history, 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 to help 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 police authority. Questions have been raised as to whether Elliot, who is black, had been properly monitored after being released. Elliot, 38, was staying at a hotel in Manhattan that has served as a homeless shelter, police said. Other residents said his behavior was sometimes erratic. Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week that Elliot’s case highlighted a pervasive problem. The state is releasing people from jail to the city “without a plan, no housing, no job, no mental health support,” he said. In a statement, the New York State Department of Corrections said that every person released from prison has an individual treatment and rehabilitation plan, and the mayor was “clearly uninformed.” The Legal Aid Society, representing 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 enforcement. Police have sent secret officers in plain clothes to neighborhoods with large Asian populations and have called for more victims to come forward. But confronting the role of mental illness in such crimes is also critical, criminologists say, and the city lacks a robust safety net for individuals who frequently come into contact with law enforcement and psychiatric professionals. “The system is so broken that someone can be handcuffed and driven to the hospital and be back on the streets in a matter of hours,” said Kevin Nadal, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. De Blasio said only a small number of people with mental illness commit violence and that the city aggressively follows up with those who have a documented history of both. Research has shown that mentally ill people are no more likely to commit crimes than other people and are more vulnerable to falling victim, said Katherine L. Bajuk, a specialist in mental health advocate at the New York County Defender Service. That some of the people arrested in recent anti-Asian incidents had an unstable history has brought some comfort to the victims. Lau, the bus driver in Brooklyn, said in an interview that he believed the blow he took from Lawson was rooted in a “breakdown in mental problems.” Still, he said the slur that Lawson had used suited 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 making fun of him. “This is how it is when you are 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 treatment until he got older and his mother could no longer force him to leave. The siblings are now strangers. “There can definitely be a better way to deal with someone other than waiting for them to have a crime or really hurt someone to get them support,” Regina Lawson said. The problem of mental illness among homeless people like Donovan Lawson has been exacerbated during the pandemic as the city moved thousands of people from shelters to hotel rooms to curb the spread of 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 anti-Asian hate crime, Eric Deoliveira, 27, had 13 previous calls of emotional disorder and at least a dozen arrests, police said. On March 21, police said Spanish-speaking Deoliveira beat a Chinese-American mother in Manhattan and smashed the sign she had carried after a demonstration to protest Asian violence. On Saturday night, Deoliveira, who had been released after being charged with assault, was arrested again in Queens and charged with smashing the windshield of a police patrol car, prosecutors said. An attorney for Deoliveira did not respond to a request for comment. Mental fitness has in some cases already become a legal issue. Last month, a judge ordered an evaluation of mental health for 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 investigation. Prosecutors said Rodriguez, who is black and Spanish-speaking, told investigators after his arrest, “I hit him. I do not like Asians. I get into disputes with them. He is also said to have told a police officer, “I will kill all the Asians when I get out of here.” During Rodriguez’s placement, he often interrupted the case and denied the allegations according to a lawsuit. Prosecutors said he had been arrested in January after smashing a glass door of a homeless Manhattan home and threatening to kill the place’s 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