During a surge in violent crimes last year aimed particularly at Asian-Americans, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a stop-the-hate campaign to highlight the discriminatory attacks
As he did throughout his eight-year term, de Blasio offered sharp words that day for would-be aggressors who were motivated by bias.
“If you’re even thinking about committing a hate crime, if you dare to raise your hand against a member of our Asian communities, you will suffer the consequences,” he said at a City Hall press conference last Feb. 23.
More recently, high profile hate crime charges include those the Manhattan District Attorney lodged against Steven Zajonc, arrested last week in connection with a string of attacks against Asian women.
But in practice, consequences for being charged with a hate crime can vary considerably, the results of such cases show — with pronounced differences between boroughs. The alleged perpetrators in many cases are young people exempt from the hate crimes penal code or those who have mental illness at the root of their conduct.
And even where prosecutors are able to amass evidence and get indictments that include hate crime charges, plea bargaining often results in those counts getting dropped by the time of conviction.
Data obtained from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services shows that of the 569 hate crime arrests that were resolved in New York City between 2015 and 2020, 65% ended up with convictions.
But even so, the hate crime component was dropped in the vast majority of instances. Only 87 cases, or 15% of hate crime arrests, resulted in a hate crime conviction, bumping up the severity of sentencing for the underlying crime.
Among the city’s five district attorneys, this rate ranged from a high of 23% in Manhattan to just 1% in The Bronx.
In fact, since Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark took control of the office in 2016, through 2020, just a single hate crime arrest out of a total of 92 resulted in a hate crime conviction.
Clark’s office secured one additional hate crime conviction in a case upgraded to a hate crime post-arrest, according to state DCJS officials, after prosecutors determined that a suspected thief had been targeting elderly victims. Her office also secured 42 convictions that excluded the initial hate crime charge, including more than a dozen non-criminal convictions.
In Brooklyn, 30 out of 173 hate crime arrests led to hate crime convictions between 2015 and 2020, while the number was 15 out of 110 in Queens and 3 out of 30 in Staten Island, according to the state data THE CITY obtained via Freedom of Information Law.
Hate crime experts and prosecutors say the numbers highlight a gap between the rhetoric of politicians on punishing hate crimes and the difficulty of proving the motivation behind an act — which is necessary to obtain conviction.
“If you are a politician, if you are a councilman, if you are a representative of a certain community, you better darn well speak in a way that’s going to sound like you’re going to protect that community,” said Frank Pezzella, an associate professor of criminal justice at CUNY’s John Jay College.
“But again, the language of protecting a community and the difficulty of proving a case are two different things.”
A spokesperson for the Bronx DA’s office cited its own data covering 2015 to 2020 showing that of 85 cases prosecuted as a hate crime, 35 resulted in a guilty plea — including four felony convictions. An additional eight cases are pending.
The spokesperson, Patrice O’Shaughnessy, noted the prevalence of cases involving youth offenders or people with mental health issues, where the motivation is not necessarily bias or hatred.
“Whenever we pursue cases based on hate crimes, they are a priority for the office. We treat them seriously,” she said.
‘So I Kicked Him’
On an otherwise ordinary afternoon in May 2018, Arquelio Negrón-Rosa was waiting for his grandson’s school bus outside his Bronx apartment when a stranger approached and asked for a cigarette.
After being rebuffed, the man, later identified as Ibrahima Seck, got angry and called Negrón-Rosa a “Puerto Rican motherf—ker.”
The stranger kicked the then-69-year-old in the chest and sent him tumbling down a flight of cellar stairs — busting Negrón-Rosa’s head open and permanently dislocating his right shoulder.
Later that same day, Seck allegedly told a responding police officer that his victim “shouldn’t be talking crap — so I kicked him. That’s why I hate Puerto Ricans.”
Seck was indicted by a Bronx grand jury several weeks later on 12 counts — including for attempted assault in the first degree as a hate crime and assault in the second degree as a hate crime, court records show.
He pleaded guilty to lesser charges, and agreed to enroll in an alcohol abuse program that would keep him out of jail if he stuck with it.
After he successfully completed the program, Seck was allowed to re-plead to a lower charge — assault in the second degree, not as a hate crime — and was conditionally discharged, according to The Bronx District Attorney’s office.
Just weeks ago, Negrón-Rosa said he was unaware of the outcome of his case until a reporter from THE CITY informed him.
“I mean, imagine: Everything I went through, I went down to the courthouse like six times, spoke to lawyers, the prosecutors, and then with the pandemic…. I had no idea what had even happened,” Negrón-Rosa said in Spanish.
“And to think that he and others like him are out in the streets,” he added. “The city has to make sure these guys aren’t out. The judges need to lock them up.”
O’Shaughnessy noted that Seck ultimately pleaded guilty to a felony, but that the office had determined that treating his underlying addiction was more appropriate than throwing him in jail.
She disputed Negrón-Rosa’s contention that he had been excluded from the plea deal, saying he had agreed to the plan to provide Seck with two years of intensive outpatient treatment.
Seck couldn’t be reached through the attorney who represented him.
Negrón-Rosa said that he had agreed with providing Seck with treatment, but he had assumed Seck would have been hospitalized for the long term and had no idea he would be free by now.
“I told them he needs help, but nobody told me he’s been out in the street this whole time,” he said on Thursday. “I’m scared now. At least I haven’t seen him on my street.”
‘Destructive to Society’
In 2000, New York became the 44th state to pass laws that were intended to increase the penalties for criminals who select their victim based on a perceived characteristic — including race, gender, religion, disability or sexual orientation.
The state Assembly had been pushing a version of the legislation for 10 years, but it had been held up in the state Senate, where then-mostly conservative legislators objected to the inclusion of sexual orientation as one of the protected classes.
Some of those opposed told the New York Times shortly before the bill passed of concerns that the law was akin to criminalizing someone’s thoughts, and that it placed a greater value on certain types of victims than others.
In October 2000, shortly after he signed the bill, then-Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, said that hate crimes “are so inherently destructive to society that they deserve special consideration under the law.”
New York’s law mandates a longer sentence upon a hate crime conviction by upping the offense one category, so that a class D felony becomes a class C — boosting the possible range of the minimum and maximum sentences by several years.
Additionally, a class A misdemeanor, the top misdemeanor category, becomes a Class E felony — the lowest felony category — when coupled with a hate crime conviction.
For the most serious felonies, a hate crime designation lengthens the mandatory minimum but not the maximum.
More than 60 crimes fall under the hate crime statute in New York, from simple menacing to possession of a biological weapon.
In 2019, amid a surge of hate crimes largely targeting Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, de Blasio, a Democrat, highlighted those enhanced penalties in making a case for harsh punishment for bias-based crimes.
“I want all the community leaders, but I want to ask the news media as well, to spread the word that when someone is motivated by hate and it’s proven, it adds jail time, it adds consequence to what they have done,” de Blasio said.
That same month, however, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez was spreading the opposite message — noting successful outcomes in these types of cases are far from a sure thing.
“People have no idea how difficult that really is,” he told the Jewish publication Hamodia. “It’s the invisible operation of someone’s mind.”
Gonzalez explained that while some people make it easy to provie bias — such as by posting neo-Nazi view points online — the majority of cases don’t come with slam-dunk evidence.
“There are other people who hold hostile and prejudiced views — but is that the reason why they committed this crime?” Gonzalez said. “Or was it really because two people got into a road-rage situation, or they share a driveway and they’re neighbors and they fight about, ‘Why do you keep driving your car in the middle of the night, waking my family up?’”
A spokesperson for Gonzalez’s office noted that he created a dedicated Hate Crimes Bureau in 2018, which enhances charges whenever appropriate.
“Protecting everyone in Brooklyn is the DA’s highest priority and it is simply unacceptable that members of certain groups are fearful to walk the streets,” said the spokesperson, Helen Peterson. “The Hate Crimes Bureau is dedicated to investigating and prosecuting crimes that are motivated by a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation of the victim, and we are committed to holding offenders accountable.”
Joan Illuzzi, a former senior trial counsel in the Manhattan DA’s office, said she understands the sentiment of elected officials — not to mention frightened communities — who expect the state’s heightened penal law to result in severe consequences for hate crimes.
“I applaud the sentiment. But having said that, there’s a disconnect between the sentiment and being able to prove the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt for an ethical prosecutor,” she said.
It’s rare that perpetrators of hate crimes express their bias against a victim during the course of an attack, or post obviously discriminatory language online, according to prosecutors.
“It’s easy to say we’re going hard against hate crime in our city,” added Illuzzi. “But you have to prove that there’s some targeting based on ethnicity or religion or some other protected class. That is more difficult than anyone thinks it is.”
The state data shows that the more serious felony arrests for hate crimes yielded felony convictions — whether as a hate crime or not — in 19% of the cases closed citywide between 2015 and 2020.
For a range of crimes, charges are typically lowered between arrest and conviction — often because of a plea deal, but at times because of decisions by a grand jury or a judge.
When non-criminal and misdemeanor convictions are included in the tally, the overall conviction rate on felony arrests resolved in those years climbs to 68%, the data show.
Grassroots organizations that promote anti-violence and deescalation efforts were not surprised by the results of THE CITY’s analysis showing relatively low hate crime conviction rates.
“It shows that hate crime prosecutions are just a bad tool for addressing this problem, in much the same way that the Hate Crime Unit of the NYPD is not a great tool for addressing the problem,” Leo Ferguson, director for strategic projects at Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, said in an interview.
The group has responded to a rise in anti-semitic acts of hate in Brooklyn and The Bronx by canvassing for crime prevention and community safety. The group is holding its next popup on Purim later this month in Spuyten Duyvil, where a playground was recently vandalized with anti-semitic graffiti.
Ferguson notes that the threat of hate crime prosecutions has not demonstrably reduced or prevented acts of hate.
“The fact is that these things aren’t working for survivors, they aren’t reducing hate violence, and they are wildly expensive and continue to pump resources into a carceral system that, as we can see just from looking at Rikers Island, is deeply broken in New York,” Ferguson said.
Officials in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office said their own forays into so-called restorative justice have included taking youth who drew swastikas in public places to the Museum of Jewish Heritage and asking them to contemplate the hurt their actions caused by writing victim letters.
A recent report by Stanford Law School and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice noted that the current approach relies too heavily on law enforcement.
The report also cited the challenges of investigating, charging and proving hate crimes — which undermine the declared benefit of enhancing penalties for these types of incidents.
“Failures within the legal system to investigate and adjudicate hate crimes might communicate a quite different message: that protecting people from hate crimes is not a priority,” the report found.
Failure to Fully Investigate
Other alleged hate crimes never make their way into prosecution statistics at all.
In May 2019, Fatoumata Camara — a black, Muslim immigrant who was wearing a hijab — was riding a BX35 bus when a group of nearly a dozen teenagers began to throw sunflower seeds at her.
Among the insults against Islam they lobbed her way was a reference to her head covering as a “stupid headrag,” according to a complaint later filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
When Camara exited the bus, members of the group followed and attacked — hitting her in the head, breaking her nose, and stealing a bag that contained her U.S. passport.
According to her lawyer, Ahmed Mohamed of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in New York, police from the 42nd Precinct arrested three alleged attackers at the time.
But Mohamed says police and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office lost interest in pursuing the case when Camara, just hours after being released from a hospital, was unable to identify her attackers in a photo array.
She later learned that the NYPD closed the investigation and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute any of the suspects — who were released from custody.
Determined to get justice, Camara on her own managed to identify witnesses and even tracked down video footage of the attack from security cameras and bystanders. None of them had been previously contacted by police investigators, her lawyer said.
It was only after Camara took her case to the media that the NYPD and Bronx DA’s office declared that the investigation was still open, according to Mohamed.
Even still, their interest in the case was short-lived, he said.
“Fatoumata not only had to investigate her own crime but for a while it seemed like she had to prosecute her own crime, or at least convince a prosecutor to do it,” he said.
“Our office tried very hard to do outreach to the district attorney’s office, to get updates, to try and find out why the folks who were originally arrested weren’t being brought up on charges and why the case wasn’t moving forward,” added Mohamed. “They never seemed to provide any answers at all.”
He said his group is a believer in restorative justice, but that there has to be proper investigation and accountability in order to initiate that process.
O’Shaughnessy, the Bronx DA spokesperson, said two people were arrested at the scene the night of the attack but it was later determined they hadn’t been involved.
She said when the video of the fight was aired by the media, the DA’s office asked the NYPD to further investigate. She added that the NYPD closed the case after Camara failed to appear at two appointments with detectives.
Mohamed said he has correspondence proving Camara never missed an appointment with police investigators, and that neither the police nor DA’s office told him the case had been closed.
“At the end of the day there’s been no accountability in Fatou’s case and it’s really just an example of everything that goes wrong in a hate crime investigation,” he said.
CCRB officials said Camara’s complaint was forwarded to the NYPD, which has jurisdiction over alleged failures to investigate. NYPD officials said the police officials named in the complaint were exonerated following an investigation.
Mohamed and other advocates have expressed frustration that their communities often have to convince law enforcement officials that a hate crime has taken place before they’ll investigate an incident as a hate crime.
Jo-Ann Yoo, the executive director of the Asian American Federation, said the Asian community is similarly looking for more support from elected officials and law enforcement in taking complaints seriously.
Her concerns have grown in the wake of a four-fold increase in hate crimes reported in 2021 that targeted Asian victims in New York City.
“Some days I’m really angry because I feel like no matter what we talk about and how we present it to people, it’s a blip in the media moment,” said Yoo.
Even Mayor Eric Adams said he believes the response to complaints about hate crimes from government and law enforcement has been inadequate in recent years.
Last month, the NYPD replaced the head of its Hate Crimes Task Force, although police officials told WABC-TV it was part of a routine reshuffling.
“I believe throughout the years we have been extremely reluctant in identifying the potentiality of a hate crime,” Adams said last month during an unrelated press conference. “I’m not going to worry about my numbers of how many hate crimes we have and try to hide them,” he added. “Because you fix a problem by identifying a problem.”
Adams cited the recent case of a 53-year-old South Korean diplomat who was punched in the face in an unprovoked attack in Midtown that was not initially investigated as a hate crime.
“Not to identify that as a possible hate crime or investigate as a hate crime, I find that troubling,” said Adams.