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Mass. Hate Crime Bill Drawing Interest After Atlanta Murders

Children carry "stop the hate" and "Asian lives matter" as they walk around Clemente Park in Lowell, Mass. during a vigil held for the victims of the shooting spree in Atlanta on March 17, 2021. (Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Children carry "stop the hate" and "Asian lives matter" as they walk around Clemente Park in Lowell, Mass. during a vigil held for the victims of the shooting spree in Atlanta on March 17, 2021. (Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The Atlanta-area shooting this week that left eight people dead and stoked a wave of outrage and fear over anti-Asian violence should be called out as a hate crime, according to Attorney General Maura Healey, who has teamed up with a pair of lawmakers to seek reforms to the hate crime statutes in Massachusetts.

Healey joined with fellow Democrats Rep. Tram Nguyen of Andover and Sen. Adam Hinds of Pittsfield to file a bill that the attorney general says would update state laws to better define hate crimes and restructure penalties.

"The thing with any hate crime, it's not just an injury or an attack on an individual, it's an attack on an entire community," Healey said.

Hate crimes are those that are motivated by bias against a person's race, religion, ethnicity, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

According to a report from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, Massachusetts law enforcement agencies reported 376 incidents of hate crime in 2019. Those 376 reports involved 421 distinct offenses, including 163 characterized as intimidation, 134 as property destruction or vandalism, 70 simple assaults and 43 aggravated assaults.

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Over the six-year period from 2014 to 2019, the number of hate crime incidents reported to EOPSS has ranged from 351 in 2018 to 427 in 2017, averaging about 395 per year.

"What we've seen, in recent years especially, is a rise in white supremacy, extremism and hate-based violence," Healey said in a phone interview. "One thing that is important, as chief law enforcement officer, is to ensure that we have the tools in place to be able to address these issues."

The bill "reworks two seldom-used statutes to better reflect their purpose of charging individuals who target a person based on their membership in a protected class" and "structures separate crimes and accompanying penalties based on the seriousness of the underlying offenses rather than grouping all alleged offenders together," Healey's office said. It lays out fines and sentences for different types of bias-motivated crimes.

"The laws right now as it stands are vague and overlapping and partially confusing," Nguyen said.

Nguyen, who was 5 years old when her family arrived in the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam, said she has been "very active in working to address the rise in anti-Asian sentiments and violence that has resulted from the painful rhetoric and scapegoating of Asians throughout these past 12 months since the start of COVID-19."

Eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in shootings at three spas in Georgia Tuesday, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Thursday that Atlanta police had not ruled out charging the suspect, who had previously visited at least two of the businesses, with a hate crime. Police across the area boosted their patrols around Asian-American communities and businesses, according to the newspaper.

After the shootings, Nguyen posted a statement on social media saying the events were "almost too painful to process" and asking that people rebuke anti-Asian sentiment and listen to the needs and fears of Asian-American and Pacific Islander community members.

"Leading up to this tragic moment, the increase in Anti-Asian harassment, violence and pain has been amplified and felt in our AAPI families, and it has culminated in a mass murder targeting Asian women working at three salons," she wrote.

Nguyen told the News Service that the bill she filed with Healey and Hinds aims to address not just violence against people of Asian descent but hate crimes of all types.

She said other members of the Legislature have been reaching out to her about the hate crimes bill in the past few days. Fourteen other lawmakers have signed on to the House bill as co-sponsors, and the Senate version has three co-sponsors along with Hinds and Healey.

"I think that this is a great opportunity to send a clear message that we all need to stand up against violence, against hate, and that [being] silent bystanders is no longer an option here in our commonwealth or anywhere in the country," she said. "We're hopeful that we would be able to empower people to stand up and also give the tools for law enforcement and attorneys, members of the judiciary to apply these laws fairly and correctly."

Healey said her conversations with other attorneys general and members of law enforcement have indicated a rise in extremism across the country. She pointed to the Georgia shooting as one example.

"This anti-Asian violence and hate is spreading across the country, and it's really important that we call out what happened in Atlanta as a hate crime," Healey said. "Those who perpetrated it need to be held accountable."

Healey asks that anyone who experiences a hate crime call her office's hotline at 1-800-994-3228.

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