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Suffolk District Attorney’s office launches Hate Crimes Task Force

In response to a nationwide string of attacks against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office announced the formation of a new Hate Crimes Task Force Monday.

The task force will consist of eight prosecutors with specialized training in bias-motivated crimes and will work with local police departments to bring enhanced charges if appropriate, District Attorney Timothy Sini said.

“Our nation is in the throes of a crisis right now in which members of non-white communities are being targeted and victimized,” Mr. Sini said in a statement acknowledging the recent attacks on members of the AAPI community. “We want our community to know that these acts will not be tolerated here. We will not stand to let racism go unchecked in this county, or to turn a blind eye to crimes committed out of hate and discrimination. Our message here today, collectively, is ‘Not on our watch.'”

Working in collaboration with the Suffolk County Police Department’s Hate Crimes Unit, prosecutors on the task force will help investigate suspected bias-motivated incidents from the outset of the cases and also help evaluate and make recommendations on amendments to strengthen current laws.

The task force will also partner with the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission to reinforce the Stop Bias program for offenders.

The program is composed of two sessions aimed at educating people who have committed hate crimes about why they are harmful and offensive, county officials said.

Participation in the program would be mandated for any defendants pending sentencing on a hate crime conviction and would include a meeting with members of law enforcement, a sensitivity facilitator and representative from the offended community.

“[The Stop Bias program] is something we are looking to strengthen in collaboration with the District Attorney’s Office so that we are addressing this issue in a comprehensive way and helping the community understand that hate crimes are not acceptable in Suffolk County,” said Lynda Perdomo-Ayala, chairperson of the county Human Rights Commission.

Officials said the creation of the task force has been underway for months, following a proposal by an internal working group last summer.

Under state law, a person is guilty of a hate crime when they commit certain crimes, including assault, murder, criminal mischief among others, intentionally due to a belief or perception regarding the victim’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, gender identity, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, crimes that target Asian Americans have risen sharply. 

In both New York and California, a string of recent attacks have left several Asian Americans severely injured or dead and last week, attacks at three Georgia spas killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women.

Speaking in Georgia on Friday, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who is of South Asian descent, condemned the attacks. 

“Everyone has the right to go to work, to go to school, to walk down the street and be safe, and also the right to be recognized as an American. Not as the other, not as them, but as us,” Ms. Harris said Friday. “A harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us. The President and I will not be silent. We will not stand by. We will always speak out against violence, hate crimes and discrimination, wherever and whenever it occurs.”

In a statement Monday, Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) characterized the recent attacks as “wholly un-American and disgusting.”

“These victims have loved ones and passionately strive to achieve the American dream and strengthen their community around them,” Mr. Zeldin said, calling for the perpetrators to be held accountable. “They deserve freedom, economic opportunity and safety without having to experience or even fear the violent hatred they are witnessing right now.”

Last March, Stop AAPI Hate began tracking incidents of hate, violence, harassment and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders throughout the United States and reported nearly 3,800 incidents in the last year, a number many advocates say could be much higher since victims can be hesitant to make reports.

“We want our communities to feel comfortable and confident to come forward and report any incident of hate,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said. “Together, with our law enforcement and community partners, we will hold accountable those who spew hate and spread fear. The Hate Crimes Task Force will bring additional tools and resources and provide a true partnership to investigate and charge individuals with hate crimes.”

Victims or witnesses of a hate crime in progress should dial 911. To report a suspected hate crime or hate incident to the Suffolk County Police Department, call 1-800-220-TIPS.