Tiffany Harris, the woman accused of slapping three Jewish women in an Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood in late December, now faces federal hate crime charges.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr made the announcement Tuesday at a meeting with Jewish leaders in Brooklyn where he pledged government action in the face of rising anti-Semitism.
Harris was already indicted by the Brooklyn District Attorney, and has been in a hospital for mental health treatment since the beginning of the month. One of her attorneys, Lisa Schreibersdorf, was caught off guard by the government’s decision.
“I am appalled that the federal government is going to step in and make my client a scapegoat,” said Schreibersdorf, who is executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services. “As if a person with a mental illness, you know, is the representative of hate crimes or anti-Semitism.”
Listen to Beth Fertig's report on WNYC:
She also accused the government of using the case to attack New York's new bail law, which required Harris to be released after her arrest on misdemeanor assault charges and hate crimes. Harris was then arrested again, a day after her release, and accused of punching another woman in Brooklyn—triggering outrage from politicians and critics of the bail reform. She was released again with supervision but a judge had her committed to a hospital on New Year’s Day.
The federal complaint, which was actually filed weeks ago by the U.S Attorney for the Eastern District, notes that Harris told the NYPD after the first arrest that she was walking through a “Jewish neighborhood.” It also said she acknowledged saying “Fuck you Jews” at some point during the three separate assaults. It includes a warrant for Harris’s arrest. Schreibersdorf said this means the government could take her as soon as she’s released from the hospital and hold her on bail.
“She will potentially have been stable at that point,” she explained. “And the worst thing you could do to somebody who's just been stabilized is to incarcerate them. So it's actually creating the exact problem that these bail laws were designed to remedy, which is to stop using jail for people who have mental illness.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District said the government would wait for Harris to be arraigned on local charges.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office said the top count in the indictment is assault in the third degree as a hate crime, a low-level felony which is no longer eligible for bail. A spokesman declined to comment on the new federal charges.
Kami Chavis, a law professor who directs the Criminal Justice Program at Wake Forest University School of Law, is an expert on hate crime laws and said it’s important for the federal government to step in and file charges. But she said it’s unusual for the federal government to do so when the local prosecutor has already taken action. She questioned whether there could be political overtones given the controversy over New York’s new bail reform.
“There’s been an uptick in hate crimes since 2016,” she noted. “Why now? Why this case? There’s so many other horrific cases where the federal government has not intervened.”
But some Jewish leaders applauded the government’s action. Rabbi David Niederman, head of United Jewish Organizations, called the decision to file hate crime charges against Harris a powerful message.
“When you commit a hate crime, you should know, it could be not only punishable by New York City state penal code but it can be a federal crime,” he said.
With reporting by WNYC’s Shumita Basu.