The NYPD Takes a Personal Response to a Nationwide Problem
As cities across the United States grapple with the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, a result experts say of the rhetoric used by some elected officials around the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Police Department has come up with a response to support the minority population: the Asian Hate Crime Task Force, made up solely of cops of Asian American descent.
“Having someone that speaks the language and is of your background makes it a little bit easier for [victims] to feel comfortable with going through the facts,” Officer Jacky Wong told Inside Edition Digital.
Wong is just one of the 25 Asian American officers that make up the task force. For him, the job is personal.
“Growing up being called different names and nasty names in school, it played a role in my upbringing because I don’t want anyone to go through that,” Wong said. “Being Asian American, it just emphasized how much I want to help the community.”
Wong is first-generation Asian American. He grew up in Kensington, Brooklyn and remembers fondly visiting the nearby Asian American enclave, Eighth Avenue, growing up. “Every weekend, we’d be like any other Asian family and hit up Chinatown,” he said. “They go eat at the same dim sum restaurants.”
Wong also grew up speaking Cantonese with his family – a skill that helped his team crack one of the more prominent anti-Asian hate crime cases in the advent of the coronavirus.
In July, an 89-year-old Asian woman was hit in the face and lit ablaze in what appeared to be a random attack, police said. She said she didn’t know either of the perpetrators, and had no previous interaction with them, authorities said.
“Prior to our intervention, she didn't want to come forward,” said Deputy Inspector Stewart Loo, who heads the Asian Hate Crime Task Force. “She only came forward because her family pleaded with her to come forward.”
Wong said he sympathizes with the sentiment. “My family especially, we don’t like to get involved,” Wong said, adding that when he heard about the incident, he thought of his own grandmother.
“I was really just eager to help because you really feel for someone of that age to be victimized like this for no apparent reason,” he explained. “I just tried my best and did everything I could to make her feel comfortable using our native tongue, Cantonese, and just helping her with the process.”
That ended up being the key element in cracking the case, according to police. Two 13-year-old boys were arrested and charged last month with third-degree assault. Because they are minors, their identities have not been made public and their case is being handled by New York City Family Court, officials said.
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Deputy inspector Mark Molinari is the commanding officer of the NYPD Hate Crime Task Force, and has been in law enforcement for 25 years. Even though hate crimes in New York City have decreased in 2020, Molinari said they anticipated the advent of the coronavirus pandemic leading to an increase in hate crimes specifically against Asian Americans.
The next challenge, he said, is making sure each case gets prosecuted.
“This year, we had three anti-Asian hate crimes. My fear, of course, is that we know it’s not an accurate number,” Molinari explained. “The victims weren't answering the door for us. They weren't answering the phone. They weren't answering emails and Twitter accounts. There was no way that we would contact them, and they would contact us back.”
That’s when the NYPD came up with the idea to come up with a task force to better address the challenges facing this specific community. “What we do see with the Asian community, in addition to other cultural barriers and fears and stigmas, is the language barrier,” he said. “Some of these victims of these COVID-related hate crimes don't speak any English, not a word.”
While the NYPD frequently uses translators with specialties of all languages, information often gets lost in translation, Molinari said. And at times, he explained, law enforcement has a harder time building trust with the victims when a personal approach isn't taken.
Loo explained that when putting together the task force, it was important to capture as many backgrounds as possible. “They’re all first-generation immigrants,” he said. “They all speak a second language. Different dialects of Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and they all have an investigative background.”
Detective Daniel Zhang, who immigrated to the United States from the Fujian province in China in 1996, explained that being able to speak a familiar tongue has been helpful in cases he has worked on. “Because of the language skill, you pretty much could be better explaining the laws. Either that, or the legal procedure that they’re going to face,” he said.
In fact, having a hard time understanding legal proceedings is something in which Zhang said he can commiserate with, having immigrated to the U.S. not knowing the letters of the alphabet that English-speakers and writers use. “It was extremely tough," he said.
His family started a restaurant when they first moved to New York. Like any family business, Zhang was tasked with helping out at a young age. He helped deliver food to customers.
“I was making [a] delivery and they robbed me of my bicycle,” Zhang recalled. “I was probably around 17 years old. And at that time, I was a minor. Clueless. They took me to the police station to do the report. Pretty much, I had no idea what was going on at that point.”
That’s why he joined the NYPD– in order to help people like himself.
And even though his family is incredibly proud of his decision more than 9 years ago to join the NYPD, following in the footsteps of his brother who joined several years before he did, they still check in to make sure he gets home safe every night. “She would always call us, like, ‘Hey, are you home yet?’” he said. “They get a sense of security [knowing] that her both sons are home safe.”
For the NYPD, Gaining Trust Within the Communities It Seeks to Protect Is the 1st Hurdle to Overcome
Captain Jackson Cheng, whose parents came from Hong Kong, said there are unique challenges that immigrant victims face when it comes to law enforcement.
“Traditionally, depending on which country you come from, there’s mistrust in the police in their home countries,” Cheng said. “There’s also sometimes a sense of, ‘well, the police aren’t going to do anything,’ but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Zhang said he worked on a case in which the victim was from Burma. “They pretty much told me they do not have any good experience with police officers in their own country,” he explained, adding that officers were not successful in helping the victims come forward in this particular instance. “They just didn’t want any further trouble.”
That’s exactly the type of scenario the Asian Hate Crime Task Force is trying to address.
“We're hoping one of the investigators that speak the native language would kind of just open the doors a little bit better,” Cheng said.
Zhang’s approach, he explained, is to share as much as possible about himself and his own upbringing to potential victims with the hopes that will help them understand that he is there to help. “I explain to them, ‘We share the same background, but now I’m a police officer. I can walk you through the process,’” he said.
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic began, Molinari said they have addressed 23 different COVID-19-related anti-Asian hate crimes.
Despite the formidable work, Cheng said he won’t stop until their team is deemed unnecessary.
“My biggest hopes and dreams: I would love for us not to exist at all. I would love one day to just not even be here,” he said. “But unfortunately, hate crimes are way too prevalent, and we want to change that.”