A woman accused of slapping three Orthodox Jewish women in New York City in December has been charged with federal hate crimes, according to U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
Barr announced the charges during a meeting with Jewish leaders at the Boro Park Jewish Community Council in Brooklyn on Tuesday to discuss the federal government’s response to a recent uptick in anti-Semitic violence across the country, including a string of attacks in New York City and a deadly attack in nearby Jersey City in December. Tiffany Harris, who allegedly slapped three Orthodox Jewish women in late December and used explicitly anti-Semitic language during the attack, will face hate crimes charges for the three separate acts.
“These are the kinds of cases that maybe in the past would have been treated locally, but I think it’s important for the federal government to plant its flag and show zero tolerance,” Barr said during the meeting. “This will not be an isolated case. We will move aggressively when we see this kind of activity.”
Harris accosted and slapped three different women in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn on Dec. 27, according to a criminal complaint. Harris allegedly referred to Crown Heights as the “Jewish neighborhood” while speaking with police, and confessed to attacking the women and using expletives to describe them, the complaint says.
Harris, 30, was arrested and released without bail following the alleged attacks, and was arrested again the next day in connection with a separate assault. After she was later arrested again for missing an appointment with social workers, Harris was ordered to be held at a hospital for psychiatric evaluation.
Her case has drawn attention to New York’s recent move to end cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, including assault without serious injury. The new state law has been hailed by criminal justice reform advocates as a progressive step in preventing people who cannot afford their bail from remaining in jail. At the same time, many law enforcement officials have criticized the changes, saying they threaten public safety.
Opponents of the new law have cited Harris’s initial arrest, release without bail and subsequent arrest as an example of the negative ramifications of bail reform. Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican from New York, called bail reforms “a disaster” in the wake of the news of Harris’s arrests.
Because she was first held on state charges, Harris was able to be released without bail under the newly enacted laws. By bringing federal charges against Harris, Barr has mounted an effort to bring the suspect back behind bars.
Although Barr did not specifically discuss bail reform, his mention of the federal charges brought against Harris could potentially force New York state lawmakers to consider changes to the bail reform laws that would make it easier for judges to deem whether someone is a threat to the community (and set bail in those circumstances). Earlier in January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the law was “still a work in progress.”
“We’re going to work on it because there are consequences we have to adjust for,” Cuomo said.
Barr’s announcement was met with rebuke and criticism from one of Harris’s alleged victims and Jewish advocacy organizations.
Elyse Maister, one of the Orthodox Jewish women who says Harris attacked her, told the New York Daily News that holding Harris on bail would not solve anti-Semitism. “I’ve been dismayed to watch politicians exploit what happened, to use it against bail reform,” she said. “I want [Harris] to get treatment and not be subject to money bail.”
Jewish advocacy organizations called out Barr for using the pain of anti-Semitism as part of a campaign against bail reform. Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, a New York City-based advocacy group, said it was “outraged” by Barr’s “attempt to use Jewish communities as political pawns.” Harris has been receiving “the appropriate medical care and services that will meet her needs” because of the bail reforms, the group said in a statement.
“Barr announced today that Harris would be charged in federal court, threatening [to] remove her from mental health support and put her behind bars, which would do nothing to keep Jewish communities safe or address underlying issues,” the group’s statement read.
Bend the Arc, another progressive Jewish organization, also criticized Barr.
Lisa Schreibersdorf, an attorney for Harris and executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, also criticized the federal charges levied against her client in a statement to the Daily News. Schreibersdorf did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.
“I am appalled that Tiffany Harris is being used as a scapegoat for the fear-mongering surrounding bail reform. Ms. Harris is quietly in the hospital getting the treatment she needs,” she said. “She is not endangering anyone. Many members of the Jewish community have spoken out against the use of incarceration in her case, including one of the victims. I don’t know how this can be seen as necessary or even humane.”
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