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Reports of crimes against Asians are rising in some cities. Police are working to figure out why.

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By Chris Fuchs

Something curious was happening with crime in California’s state capital of Sacramento, police have noticed.

In the last several months, one district in the city of 495,000 recorded a drop in strong-arm robberies with Asian victims, while another saw an increase, Detective Eddie Macaulay, a Sacramento Police Department spokesman, said in a Nov. 13 phone interview.

For the spike in robberies, one thing was clear — people of Asian descent were the target, according to Macaulay.

“We’ve seen this happening and we’ve done quite a bit to combat it,” he said.

Police across the country are working on way to engage the Asian-American community.J. Castro / Getty Images

Macaulay said over an almost year period, more than 50 people have been arrested so far in connection with robberies of Asians, with some incidents dating back months before the recent increase.

While police continue to puzzle out the "why" in this trend, some who work to raise crime awareness in Asian communities say underlying stereotypes and perceptions of Asians can influence a criminal’s choice of target.

Just last week, a federal judge sentenced a Philadelphia man to 37 years in prison for his participation in a string of violent armed home-invasion robberies in 2015 targeting Asian business owners, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The victims, identified at their place of business, were covertly followed back home to track their home addresses before the robberies were carried out days later, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

And in late November, two suspects were arrested in connection with a spree of violent armed robberies of Asian-owned businesses in the Atlanta, Georgia, metropolitan area between October and November, the FBI announced.

Two customers were shot in one of the robberies, each in the leg, and an employee in her back as she knelt on the ground, the FBI said.

“They look at us as easier targets,” said Karlin Chan, a community activist in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

“The other piece we tried to hit on is, know your neighbors. You live in this area, you know what it is that doesn’t look right. If it doesn’t look right, call the police.”}

Charging a hate crime, though, can be a tall order. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required to show that a victim was chosen because of some clearly identifiable characteristic like race, according to a 2009 article entitled “Hate Crimes and Revealing Motivation through Racial Slurs,” published by the American Society of Trial Consultants.

“Even when the defendant purposely chose the victim because he was Black, Jewish, or gay, a confession substantiating this fact is not likely to be forthcoming,” authors Gregory S. Parks and Shayne Jones wrote. “Instead, such motivation is likely hidden from authorities, who must then gather evidence that speaks to this issue.”

Since 2009, the year the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law, federal prosecutors turned down 87 percent of hate crime referrals, according to a 2015 report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data gathering and research organization at Syracuse University.

Insufficient evidence, lack of evidence of criminal intent, and weak or insufficient admissible evidence were the top three reasons for the rejections, the report said.

Chan, who has participated in New York City hate crime forums, said he believes perpetrators often stereotype Asians as immigrants who are unable to speak English. That makes them a target, he said, as criminals assume they cannot communicate with law enforcement and thus won’t call police.

Despite outreach efforts, though, Chan said many crimes still go unreported, which emboldens criminals to continue targeting a community.

“If you don’t report it, the police don’t know about it,” Chan said.

“We’ve noticed the trend, and then one of our big concerns is why is it happening, why is it happening to this particular group, and what can we do to prevent it from happening.”}

Experts say language barriers, immigration status, and a lack of familiarity with the justice system can make victims hesitant to report crimes.

“For a lot of immigrants, depending on where they’re from, there might really just be this distrust of government and law enforcement and reluctance to engage,” said Marita Etcubañez, director of strategic initiatives for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, a civil rights nonprofit.

It’s not immediately clear from statistics alone whether more crimes are being committed — or more are being reported — that involve Asian American and Pacific Islander victims.

National figures are also hard to come by detailing the percentage of crime victims identified as Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian, experts say.

While FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data break down arrests by race, they don’t do the same for victims. The FBI does release an annual hate crime report, which showed a 5 percent increase in the number of hate crimes committed in the U.S. in 2016, compared to the year before.

But those same figures also revealed a drop in single-bias hate crime offenses involving an anti-Asian bias, from 5.5 percent in 2014 to 3.1 percent in 2016.

The FBI said it doesn’t comment on or provide analysis of the report, but critics claim the data, voluntarily submitted by law enforcement agencies, can be underreported and thus unreliable.

Sacramento logged no bias crime reports toward Asians from Jan. 1 to Nov. 13 of this year, according to figures provided by the Sacramento Police Department through a public records request.

Data also showed that the number of robberies reported with at least one Asian victim dropped from 175 in 2008 to 83 in 2014, a roughly 53 percent decrease.

But those numbers shot back up to 155 in 2016, a nearly 87 percent increase over a two-year period, statistics show. This year recorded 134 reports from Jan. 1 to Nov. 13.

According to Census estimates, Asians accounted for around 19 percent of Sacramento’s population.

The City of Sacramento noted that the statistics don’t reflect whether each incident met the threshold for filing a criminal complaint.

By contrast, New York City, where roughly 1 in 8 residents identify as Asian, generally saw an upward creep in certain crime categories involving Asian and Pacific Islander victims, according to publicly available data from the New York Police Department (NYPD).

“For a lot of immigrants, depending on where they’re from, there might really just be this distrust of government and law enforcement and reluctance to engage.”}

Between 2008 and 2016, the percentage of Asian and Pacific Islander victims of robbery rose from 11.6 percent to 14.2 percent; felonious assault from 5.2 percent to 6.6 percent; and grand larceny from 10.3 percent to 13.5 percent, figures show.

Citywide, over the last seven years, robberies were down 29 percent, though felony assaults were up 17 percent and grand larcenies 13 percent, NYPD crime statistics show.

As of Nov. 5, the NYPD recorded seven hate crime complaints toward Asians for this year, the department said.

The Sacramento Police Department encourages residents to be active in their communities as part of an effort to prevent crime, according to Macaulay. That includes calling in defective street lights for repair, ensuring the fronts of houses are well lit, and installing security cameras.

“The other piece we tried to hit on is, know your neighbors,” he added. “You live in this area, you know what it is that doesn’t look right. If it doesn’t look right, call the police.”

Macaulay said the department organizes and attends meetings to educate and raise awareness in communities victimized by crime. One was held on Nov. 1 following the increase in robberies with Asian victims, Macaulay said.

Officers sent to those meetings may share a similar cultural background and speak the same language as community members, he said.

In the case of the Sacramento district that saw the increase in robberies of Asians, victims were confronted by multiple suspects in front of their houses or as they were arriving home in their vehicles, according to Macaulay.

He said the robbers stole personal property, such as money, jewelry and cell phones, before fleeing.

“We’re still trying to get to the root of why this is occurring,” Macaulay explained last month. “We’ve noticed the trend, and then one of our big concerns is why is it happening, why is it happening to this particular group, and what can we do to prevent it from happening.”

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Chris Fuchs

Chris Fuchs is a freelance journalist based in New York. His articles have appeared in Foreign Policy, the Taipei Times, and in Chinese on ETToday.net, a popular Taiwanese news website.