He Was Charged in an Anti-Asian Attack. It Was His 33rd Arrest.

Many people arrested in assaults on Asian residents in New York have had a history of mental health episodes, arrests and homelessness, complicating the city’s search for an effective response.,


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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 older Asian couple.

Mr. Lau, 63, stepped in front of the man to ask what he was doing. The man, Donovan Lawson, spat at Mr. Lau and punched him in the face, calling him an anti-Chinese slur, prosecutors said. Mr. Lawson, who is Black, was arrested and charged with a hate crime.

It was the 33rd arrest for Mr. Lawson, 26, who is homeless and mentally ill, the authorities said. Four times, officers had been called to assist him because he appeared to be in the grip of a mental breakdown, and he was being monitored for treatment in a mental health program run by the Police Department.

He is not unique. Many of the people charged recently with anti-Asian attacks in New York City have also had a history of mental health episodes, multiple arrests and homelessness, complicating the city’s search for an effective response.

ImageTommy Lau, a bus driver, intervened when he saw a man harassing an older Asian couple in Brooklyn. The man punched him and called him an anti-Chinese slur, the police said.
Tommy Lau, a bus driver, intervened when he saw a man harassing an older Asian couple in Brooklyn. The man punched him and called him an anti-Chinese slur, the police said. Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

The pattern has revealed gaps in the criminal justice system’s ability to respond effectively when racial bias overlaps with mental illness, even as the city has stepped up enforcement efforts against these crimes.

For instance, Mr. Lawson was one of at least seven people arrested after attacks on Asian city residents in the last two weeks of March, ending with a horrifying attack on a Filipino-American woman, who was kicked repeatedly in broad daylight in Manhattan by a man the police say was homeless and on parole after serving a prison sentence for killing his mother.

Of the seven people arrested, five had prior encounters with the police during which they were considered “emotionally disturbed,” police parlance for someone thought to be in need of psychiatric help. Investigators believed the remaining two also had signs of mental illness.

Officials say those arrested 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 drug addiction.

Dermot F. Shea, the New York police commissioner, said in a television interview on Friday that there were “always arrests prior to these tragic, tragic incidents, and we need to address this mental illness piece.”


The police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, has said many of the people arrested in recent attacks had prior arrests and other encounters with the police. Credit…Craig Ruttle/Associated Press

So far, the police have received reports of at least 35 anti-Asian hate crimes in New York this year, already surpassing the 28 reported all of last year, and far more than the three reported in 2019, the police said.

Attacks against Asian-Americans began to rise across the country last year as the pandemic raged and former President Donald J. Trump called the disease the “Chinese virus” and the “Kung Flu” in an effort to blame China for the catastrophe.

Law enforcement officials said Mr. Trump’s rhetoric provided ammunition to people who scapegoated Asian-Americans for spreading the virus, exacerbating racial tensions and spurring unprovoked attacks and harassment.

At the same time, the pandemic strained a criminal justice system that has long struggled to deliver treatment to mentally ill people who run afoul of the law. Social services cut back in-person meetings. Unemployment soared. The number of single homeless adults reached record levels.

“People’s fuses were much shorter,” said Karen Friedman Agnifilo, a former high-ranking official in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. “If you were an angry person filled with hate, it seems like it didn’t take much to set you off.”

Hate crime incidents in New York generally tend to rise after divisive news events, experts on such prosecutions said, and most spring from spur-of-the-moment confrontations. After the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, Muslim Americans were targeted. After the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, anti-Semitic attacks rose.

State prison officials said that, because of privacy laws, they could not release information about the health history of Brandon Elliot, the man arrested in connection with the brutal March 29 attack on the Filipino woman in Manhattan.

But the police had been called to assist Mr. 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 law enforcement official.


Police offered a reward for information about the assault on a Filipino woman in Midtown Manhattan. On March 31, Brandon Elliot, 38, was arrested. Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

Questions have been raised about whether Mr. Elliot, who is Black, had been properly supervised after being paroled. Mr. Elliot, 38, was living at a hotel in Midtown Manhattan that has been serving as a homeless shelter, the police said. Other residents said his behavior was sometimes erratic.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week that Mr. Elliot’s case highlighted a pervasive problem. The state releases people from prison into the city “with no plan, no housing, no job, no mental health support,” he said.

In a statement, New York State’s corrections department said that every person released from prison has an individual treatment and rehabilitation plan and the mayor was “clearly not informed.” The Legal Aid Society, which is representing Mr. 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. The Police Department has sent undercover plainclothes officers to neighborhoods with large Asian populations and has encouraged 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 mental health professionals.

“The system is so broken that somebody can be handcuffed and taken to the hospital and be back on the street in a matter of a few hours,” said Kevin Nadal, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


Volunteers hand out fliers advertising a program called Safe Walk, which provides walking companions for Asian New Yorkers concerned for their safety.Credit…Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

Mr. de Blasio said that only a small number of people with mental illnesses 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 becoming victims, said Katherine L. Bajuk, a mental health attorney specialist at the New York County Defender Service.

That some of the people arrested in recent anti-Asian incidents had a history of instability has brought little comfort to victims.

Mr. Lau, the bus driver in Brooklyn, said in an interview that he believed the punch he took from Mr. Lawson was rooted in a “breakdown in mental health issues.”

Still, he said, the slur Mr. Lawson had used fit a pattern of racism he has experienced since childhood, when his elementary schoolteacher called him Tommy instead of his given name, Kok Wah, to prevent his classmates from making fun of him.

“That’s how it is when you’re Asian, always being harassed by others,” Mr. Lau said. “The pandemic made it worse.”

Regina Lawson, Mr. Lawson’s sister, said he showed signs of mental illness at a young age and received therapy until he grew older and his mother could no longer force him to go. The siblings are now estranged.

“There could be definitely a better way of dealing with someone other than waiting until they have a felony or really hurt someone to get them the support,” Ms. Lawson said.

The problem of mental illness among homeless people like Mr. Lawson has been exacerbated during the pandemic as the city moved thousands of people from shelters into hotel rooms to slow the spread of the coronavirus, shelter providers said. The move has isolated some people with mental illnesses, leaving them with less supervision.

One homeless man charged in a recent anti-Asian hate crime, Eric Deoliveira, 27, had 13 prior emotional disturbance calls and at least a dozen arrests, the police said.

On March 21, the police said, Mr. Deoliveira, who is Hispanic, punched a Chinese-American mother in Manhattan and smashed the sign that she had been carrying after a rally to protest anti-Asian violence.

On Saturday night, Mr. Deoliveira, who had been released after the assault charge, was arrested again in Queens and accused of smashing the windshield of a police patrol car, prosecutors said. A lawyer for Mr. Deoliveira did not respond to a request for comment.

Mental fitness has already become a legal issue in some cases. Last month, a judge ordered a mental health evaluation for Ruddy Rodriguez, 26, who was arrested and accused of hitting an Asian man on the back of the head in Manhattan while saying an anti-Chinese expletive.

Prosecutors said that Mr. Rodriguez, who is Black and Hispanic, told investigators after his arrest, “I hit him. I don’t like Asians. I get into disputes with them.” He also is said to have told a police officer, “I’m going to kill all of the Asians when I get out of here.”

During Mr. Rodriguez’s arraignment, he frequently interrupted the proceedings and denied the allegations, according to a court transcript. Prosecutors said he had been arrested in January after he smashed a glass door at a Manhattan homeless shelter and threatened to kill the site’s coordinator.

A lawyer for Mr. Rodriguez did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael Gold contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill and Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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