Mountain View native Alexander Adams was teaching grade school students in a remote Taiwanese village in 2009 when the coverup of an unspeakable crime made him decide to become a prosecutor.
"I taught K through sixth grade. The areas that I worked in would be similar to, I guess, what we would say an Indian reservation would be like in the United States. They have an aboriginal population in Taiwan that lived there before the Chinese came to the island. And similar to the Native American story in the United States, once the Chinese immigrated there they pushed the aboriginals off of their land," he recalled.
"One of my students, who was in sixth grade, was victimized sexually by multiple people in her community. And it was discovered by the school, who went through their own protocols of investigating and mandatory disclosure. But once it went to the police, their response was to get rid of the problem. And what I mean by that is to move the victim to a different town, not prosecute anybody, and not hold anybody accountable for that crime," he said.
Adams, who is a Santa Clara County deputy district attorney in the gang unit and was previously assigned to the Major Narcotics Vendor Prosecution team, has spent his years advocating for victims. Now, as hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders continue to surge, he's taken on a personal mission: to educate the community about fighting hate.
"Just hearing from my family members telling you, 'Alex, do I need to carry a gun when I go into the store? What happens if somebody attacks me?' It's been really difficult to hear that, particularly working in ... law enforcement," said Adams, whose mother is a native of Taiwan and whose father is white.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the number of hate crimes the DA's Office has prosecuted has more than doubled. Annually, the office usually files five or six cases a year. Last year, the office filed about 14. This year, as of April, they've already identified 10 hate crimes, said Adams, who spoke with this news organization as an individual and not representing the DA's Office.
The crimes aren't just against Asian Americans; they're against transsexual, transgender people, on the basis of religion and against other ethnic groups, he noted. But the number of reported hate incidents and hate crimes against Asians and Pacific Islanders can't be buried. It has nearly doubled nationwide since the pandemic began, he said.
Hate incidents reported to the advocacy organization Stop AAPI Hate rose from 3,795 as of March 19, 2020, to 6,603 as of March 31, 2021. The incidents included verbal harassment, shunning, online harassment and civil rights discrimination and crimes such as physical assault and vandalism. Nearly 38% of incidents occurred in public streets and parks and more than 32% were in businesses. Women reported 64.8% of the incidents.
Adams and the DA's Office have taken decisive steps to help Asian Pacific Islanders fight against hate. In July 2020, Adams did a Mandarin language interview with Chinese-language radio station 96.1 to talk about self defense and how to employ it legally.
Most recently, he's conducted community meetings where he speaks to Asian American immigrants about a hate crime versus a hate incident; what to do if one is a bystander and witnesses an incident or crime or is a victim; how to call the police; what to do to self-advocate once a criminal case has been filed; how to request a police report; how to talk to the DA, and how the court functions.
COVID-19 has encouraged a very specific kind of crime. Criminals are targeting businesses, particularly those run by Asian Americans, by posing as a county enforcement officer and shaking them down by claiming false violations, he said. The businesses are prime targets because the owners don't want to report the crimes to law enforcement, he said.
Adams educates business owners about their rights. If someone uses a racial slur, the person has engaged in a racial incident, but it's not a crime. They should still report it to police. If the person breaks a window, blocks the door and prevents people from leaving or entering the business or spits on an employee in the course of using a racial slur, they have committed a hate crime, he said.
He also volunteers as president of the Northern California Chapter of the National Asian Pacific Islander Prosecutors Association (NAPIPA). The national organization, which now has seven chapters throughout the country, was founded in 2010 by two Santa Clara County prosecutors, Paul Jhin and Charles Huang.
The organization was formed after a dinner among Bay Area and Silicon Valley Asian American Pacific Islander prosecutors revealed they had similar experiences and passions for helping their communities. NAPIPA provides Asian Pacific Islander prosecutors training and mentorship and offers outreach and education to the Asian Pacific Islander community about the criminal justice system.
Adams said prosecutor and law enforcement training includes developing cultural competency and working to make encounters in the law enforcement and court systems more easily accessible. When people come from a culture or political system such as the one he saw in Taiwan, they often don't understand the American justice system or their rights. Speaking of experiences such as the sexual assault case in Taiwan, he said, "If that's what you grew up with and that's kind of how you view the police or law enforcement, if you're a victim and moved to the United States, maybe you don't report that — maybe you don't want to get moved away from your home and you think about the consequences (that) will be visited upon you for saying something."
Language can be one of the biggest barriers to reporting crimes, so during his community meetings Adams tells people to first get to a safe place away from the perpetrator and to call the police or have someone call on their behalf.
When the dispatcher starts speaking English, the victim or person reporting the incident should not feel intimidated. They can memorize a few things in English to say, such as that they speak Mandarin, Cantonese or another language, so the dispatcher can find a translator for them.
"The second thing is, make sure to listen very carefully to the dispatchers because they're going to be asking you for details that you might not think are important, but they need immediately to get a description of the suspect, as well as any direction of travel, as well as weapons or injuries," he said.
"You may not feel any injuries during the initial rush of adrenaline after you've been assaulted, but if you have any kind of an injury — soft tissue or you hit your head — the dispatcher will ask you if you need medical attention, and then they will roll EMS or a fire truck to you. That way you can document your injuries at the scene, rather than potentially going home afterward without any documentation, and then having to report later on."
People also should understand that they will be asked to repeat what they told the dispatcher when officers arrive. If the incident is not ongoing, sometimes it can take hours for officers to show up, he said.
Finding and prosecuting people for hate crimes is important, but Adams doesn't think additional penalties for hate crimes are the answer.
"We're not going to arrest our way out of hatred; we're not going to arrest our way out of discrimination. That's not how the criminal justice system is designed. And so what it takes is partnering — partnering with a lot of community groups who are not lawyers.
"I think fixing racism in this country is going to require every facet of life to come together, from parenting to schools to employment to law enforcement to media and entertainment. All those factors need to come together in order to combat what I think is really ignorance, which is at the heart of racism. So it's a bigger problem that any one part of our society can handle, and it requires everybody to work in tandem," he said.