Asian residents of south Sacramento say they’ve formed their own armed patrols to respond to a wave of robberies that has terrorized the community, where business owners report a steep drop in customers because people are afraid to go out after dark.
Sacramento police, meanwhile, say they are weighing whether to classify some of the robberies as hate crimes.
Restaurants and supermarkets in south Sacramento are closing early, with some managers escorting customers to their vehicles to prevent robberies in the parking lot. Some business owners have resorted to layoffs, as revenue declines hit 20 to 30 percent on average.
“I don’t blame people for not coming out,” restaurateur Joe Liao said in Mandarin on Monday. “If they go out to eat, they have two things to worry about – robbery in the parking lot or burglary at home.”
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Liao owns Szechuan Spicy House on 65th Street in the Shun Fat Supermarket plaza, a bustling center of Asian commerce in south Sacramento. Few diners arrive past 7:30 p.m. since the surge in crime began over the last six months, Liao said.
On Stockton Boulevard, King Palace Seafood manager Paula Young has chosen to close an hour early at 8:30 p.m. on several occasions due to the lack of customers.
“The people who live in south Sacramento aren’t coming out anymore,” she said. “They are afraid. All everyone talks about now is the crime.”
Some Chinese community leaders have formed a task force to combat the issue themselves, frustrated by the slow response from civic leaders. The volunteers have launched armed patrols in south Sacramento and respond to calls for assistance from those using WeChat, a popular social media app that originated in China.
“This is a lifeline for Chinese people. This is the only way they can call for help,” said Wei Xin Yang, one of the organizers of the WeChat group.
Speaking in Mandarin, Yang said there are dozens of volunteers participating in the armed patrols, from restaurant owners to marijuana growers. Yang, who has lived in Sacramento for nearly 30 years, said 1,000 people are subscribed to the WeChat group and that calls for help have rapidly increased over the last few weeks as more people discover this resource.
“There’s no difference between night and day,” he said of the requests for assistance. “We need to take security into our own hands. If not, who will protect us?”
Sacramento Police Department spokesman Officer Matthew McPhail said the department “strongly discourages” such citizen patrols due to safety concerns.
“There is an inherent risk … when you opt to take the law into your own hands,” McPhail said.
The crimes targeting Asians have followed a pattern: The victims are robbed and attacked just as they exit their vehicle in a parking lot or at home, according to police and witness accounts.
At least 10 suspects have been arrested in connection with the spate of crimes, but detectives have not released details or mugshots.
“We’re dealing with a very large geographic area,” McPhail said. “Because of that, we rely on members of the community to be our eyes and ears. That’s why it’s important to call us.”
Detectives are considering a hate-crime enhancement in some of the cases because the suspects clearly targeted Asians. However, whether an incident rises to become a hate crime can be difficult to determine, McPhail said.
“There is a fine line between picking people who you think might have money and targeting someone because you dislike them,” McPhail said.
Gabriel Chin, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law, said these incidents could be classified as hate crimes as long as the victim is targeted for race, ethnicity or nationality.
“Hate crime can be an independent offense,” said Chin, an expert in Asian American legal history. “If it takes course in a robbery, assault or murder, it operates as an enhancement of the sentence.”
Targeting Asians has historical roots, Chin said, citing a California statute from the 1800s that prevented Chinese from testifying against non-Chinese in a court of law. In essence, that meant “Chinese could be freely raped, robbed or murdered,” he said.
McPhail said police are aware of multiple rap songs that advocate targeting Chinese or Asians, including a song by the rapper YG with the lyrics, “Find a Chinese neighborhood, ’cause they don’t believe in bank accounts.”
Police have described the suspects as African American men, ages 18 to 25.
On Sunday night, more than 600 Asian Americans showed up at George Sim Community Center to voice their concern to city and police officials. Community leaders like Tom Phong, owner of Welco Supermarket, said they were heartened by the turnout and show of unity. Speakers took turns addressing the crowd in Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Hmong.
But that unity evaporated by the end of the meeting as a long-running dispute within the Indochinese community spilled over, Phong said. Almost half the crowd walked out in protest of a speech by Linda Lui, president of the Sacramento Chinese of Indochina Friendship Association. Lui took the helm of the nonprofit organization two years ago in a hotly contested leadership dispute that involved several lawsuits.
A separate uproar occurred when an African American speaker blamed the spike in crime on illegal marijuana-growing operations in the targeted communities. The overwhelmingly Asian crowd disputed that allegation, sparking “undertones” of racial tension, said Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg.
He called for unity to fix the problem and cautioned against the neighborhood turning on its own members.
“I want to make it very clear that we are not going to divide ourselves over racial and ethnic lines,” Steinberg said. “This is a community for all.”
The Bee’s Anita Chabria contributed to this report.