• The Star Staff

He was charged in an anti-Asian attack. It was his 33rd arrest.

By Nicole Long, Ashley Southall and Ali Watkins

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.

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

It was the 33rd arrest for Lawson, 26, who is homeless and mentally ill, 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.

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, 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 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 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 City police commissioner, said in a television interview Friday that there were “always arrests prior to these tragic, tragic incidents, and we need to address this mental illness piece.”

So far, 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, police said.

Attacks against Asian Americans began to rise across the country last year as the pandemic raged and former President Donald Trump used racist slurs for the disease in an effort to blame China for the catastrophe.

Law enforcement officials said 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, Virginia, 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 police had been called to assist 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.

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

Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week that 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 Elliot, urged the public “to reserve judgment until all the facts are presented in court.”

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

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

Still, he said, the slur 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,” Lau said. “The pandemic made it worse.”

Regina Lawson, 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,” Regina Lawson said.

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