A troubling rise in anti-Asian incidents reported to Minnesota community groups started a month before COVID-19 appeared in the state last year.

As the pandemic worsened, so did reports to groups like the St. Paul-based Coalition of Asian American Leaders. In one call to the group, a couple said an angry fellow grocery shopper blamed them for the coronavirus and shoved the husband in the parking lot.

"This time it was shoving. What if next time someone wants to run them over with their car?" said Bo Thao-Urabe, the group's executive director.

Minnesota's Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are joining state and federal Democratic lawmakers in urging new legislation to improve hate-crime reporting and police training in the state. They say there's renewed urgency after the recent deadly shootings of six Asian American women and two others in Atlanta, in addition to ongoing harassment here and elsewhere that threatens to outlast the pandemic.

"We must condemn it universally," U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., said at a news conference on Wednesday in support of federal and state legislative proposals. "We must remember that our destinies are tied together: An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us."

State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, is again sponsoring legislation to let community groups file hate crime reports and to update police training guidelines. The bill would make graffiti and other acts of property damage eligible to be counted as bias crimes.

Hate crime data in the U.S. has been historically uneven: The FBI produces an annual tally each year, but those numbers come from voluntary reporting from police nationwide. Not all states participate, and while Minnesota police agencies are required to submit data on "bias-motivated incidents" to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), many of the state's largest police departments routinely report having investigated no cases each year.

"So many thousands of hate crimes are not reported, and when they go underreported they are not discussed and the perpetrators are not held accountable," Hornstein said.

What data does exist points to an upward trend of anti-Asian hate crimes around the country. A recent study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found such incidents climbed nearly 150% in 16 of the country's largest cities last year, even while hate crimes dropped overall.

The BCA has not released data on hate crimes in 2020 but last reported a slight increase in overall bias incidents from 2018 to 2019.

Last week, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison convened the first of multiple virtual roundtable discussions on stopping AAPI hate. Local Department of Justice leaders and elected officials including Ramsey County Attorney John Choi participated.

"This is not only a conversation, this is a call to action," said Ellison, who announced a task force. "We are going to keep the pressure on. We are going to keep working hard and we are going to protect the community."

Surge in incidents

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has cited the surge in incidents against Asian Americans in ordering a 30-day review of how the Justice Department can best curb hate crimes.

"These sensational events are a rallying call for action, but it is up to us to do the rest of the work," said Rep. Samantha Vang, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who is co-sponsoring the House bill with Hornstein.

Omar is also co-sponsoring a resolution to call on all public officials to denounce anti-Asian racism related to COVID-19 and asking federal officials "to expeditiously investigate and document all credible reports of hate crimes and incidents and threats against the Asian-American community and prosecute perpetrators."

Democrats on Wednesday repeated calls for the Republican-led Minnesota Senate to hold a hearing on Hornstein and Vang's proposal, which passed a House committee last week on a 10-8 party-line vote.

Their bill's chances of success are slim in the Senate, where a GOP spokeswoman said Wednesday that Sen. Warren Limmer, the Maple Grove Republican who leads the Judiciary Committee, will focus only on passing a budget for the remainder of the 2021 session.

Rachel Aplikowski, the GOP Senate spokeswoman, said law enforcement groups have expressed concerns that adding additional reforms on top of new training requirements passed last year would be difficult to implement in a timely manner.

Gender identity issue

Other Republican state lawmakers have cited the House bill's protections for gender identity in their objections.

"I believe in science. I believe if you have an XY chromosome you're a male, if you have a YY chromosome you're a female," said State Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton. "And the language here is going to put Minnesotans in the awkward position of being science deniers and having to choose science over somebody's confusion."

Lucero unsuccessfully tried to add an amendment making officers immune from claims that they did not properly investigate bias crimes based on gender identity.

"The bottom line of civil rights and human rights laws in the state is that everybody is protected, no exceptions," Hornstein said.

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755

Twitter: @smontemayor