SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Rising cases of discrimination and violence against Asian Americans have renewed efforts to better track, report, and prosecute these hateful incidents.
“Public safety is not about only the real safety statistics; it's whether people feel safe. And I would say at this moment in our history, unfortunately, the Asian communities feel unsafe. They feel unprotected. They feel vulnerable and exposed,” said Summer Stephan, district attorney for the county of San Diego.
A recent survey from AAPI Data, a policy research nonprofit group, found Asian Americans were among the least likely to feel comfortable reporting hate crimes, harassment, and discrimination to authorities. The survey found upwards of 2 million Asian American adults have experienced a hateful incident in the wake of the pandemic.
“Hate crimes are traditionally difficult to prosecute and are very much underreported, possibly the most underreported crime, because people sometimes feel shame. They want it to just go away,” said Stephan.
Early in the pandemic, her office created an online hate crime reporting tool to encourage reporting.
“The first-of-its-kind in the nation where we’re able to connect directly and guide someone through the process of whether this is a hate incident or a hate crime," she explained.
Stephan says government agencies don’t usually track hate incidents.
“We wanted to open the path to the reporting of hate incidents for two reasons. One, is sometimes people think it's not a hate crime, and it is. And two, because it allows us to do more research.”
To be considered a hate crime, there are two criteria. A crime, like assault or vandalism, must occur and it must be motivated by a bias, such as race, ethnicity, language, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender.
A hate incident is motivated by a bias but may not be a crime. For example, a racial slur could be protected by the First Amendment.
Stephan says her office wants to hear about all hate-related incidents.
“Let us figure out if it is an actionable crime or whether it's just an incident that we still are able to use to prevent and do further investigations," Stephan said.
She says in one case, a reported hate incident helped authorities stop a potential hate crime.
“The person made hateful remarks, but then when we looked, it turns out they were accumulating an arsenal of weapons,” said Stefan. “We uncovered an impending crime and were able to stop it.”
Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh leads their hate crimes unit.
“Until we can kind of accurately quantify how bad the problem is, no one is going to pay attention to it,” said Trinh.
Trinh’s own family was victimized by a hate crime. His parents came to the United States from Vietnam, settling in a mostly white community.
“They celebrated their heritage. They decorated our house and made it look very Asian. One of our neighbors didn't like that our house stood out, and so he, you know, kind of kicked in our fences and knocked over some of our decorations,” said Trinh. “My mom kind of retreated to the small Asian community that lived in our hometown and didn't interact with other people, so as a result, her English suffered.”
Trinh says victims of hate crimes and incidents can get support and resources.
“I think we can all do a better job of being in contact with the communities, particularly the ones that are being targeted over and over again. And encourage them to report and encourage them to follow up on their cases,” said Trinh.
They've received over 110 reports through the portal and are holding virtual summits with community members, empowering citizens with information about the law.
“And in return, us listening and getting better at what we do every day to hold haters, essentially, accountable,” said Stephan.
The federal government is stepping up efforts to track and prosecute hate crimes, outlining a plan that includes federal, state, and local law enforcement training on handling hate crimes.