ATLANTA (AP) — President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris plan to meet with Asian American community leaders in Georgia in the wake of the deadly shootings at three Atlanta-area massage parlors, the White House announced Thursday.
Meanwhile, authorities said the investigation was wide open and could still result in hate crimes charges.
“Our investigation is looking at everything, so nothing is off the table,” Deputy Police Chief Charles Hampton Jr. said during a news conference.
The president and vice president were already scheduled to travel Friday to Atlanta to tout the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, but the trip took on new meaning after the shootings that killed eight people, six of them Asian women. A ninth person was also shot but survived.
The visit also comes amid an intense debate over voter rights in Georgia. Harris is the first vice president of Asian descent.
Authorities have charged Robert Aaron Long, 21, with murder in the worst mass killing in the U.S. in almost two years. Investigators believe Long had visited two of the massage parlors where four women were killed, Hampton said.
Long told police that Tuesday’s attack was not racially motivated. He claimed to have a sex addiction, and authorities said he apparently lashed out at what he saw as sources of temptation.
Police have said they are still working to determine a motive, but Long’s statements spurred outrage and widespread skepticism in the Asian American community, which has increasingly been targeted for violence during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Jay Baker drew criticism for saying Long had “a really bad day” and “this is what he did.”
Sheriff Frank Reynolds released a statement Thursday acknowledging that some of Baker’s comments stirred “much debate and anger” and said the agency regrets any “heartache” caused by his words.
“In as much as his words were taken or construed as insensitive or inappropriate, they were not intended to disrespect any of the victims, the gravity of this tragedy or express empathy or sympathy for the suspect,” Reynolds said in the statement, adding that Baker “had a difficult task before him, and this was one of the hardest in his 28 years in law enforcement.”
Biden and Harris will postpone an evening political event in Georgia for a future date, the White House said. During the trip to Atlanta, they will instead meet with Asian American leaders to discuss the ongoing threats against the community, meet with other local leaders and visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for an update on the pandemic.
Also Thursday, Biden directed that flags be flown at half-staff through sunset Monday in honor of the dead.
At a congressional hearing on violence against Asian Americans that was scheduled before the shootings, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler called Thursday for the government to “investigate and swiftly address” growing tensions but did not call for a specific course of action.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would assign a person at the Justice Department to expedite the review of hate crimes related to COVID-19 and provide additional support to state and local authorities to respond to those crimes. But it is unclear if the bill by Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, will get a vote.
Testifying at the hearing, Meng urged Democratic leaders to move the legislation and said lawmakers “cannot turn a blind eye” to people who are living in fear.
“Our community is bleeding,” Meng said. “We are in pain. And for the last year, we’ve been screaming out for help.”
There was some tension as a Republican on the panel, Texas Rep. Chip Roy, charged that Democrats were trying to control speech.
“When we start policing free speech, we’re doing the very thing that we’re condemning when we condemn what the Chinese Communist Party does to their country,” Roy said. “And that’s exactly where this wants to go.”
Meng responded angrily to Roy’s comments, saying that Republicans “can talk about issues with any other country you want, but you don’t have to do it by putting a bull’s-eye on the back of Asian Americans across this country, on our grandparents, on our kids.”
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Zeke Miller, Jonathan Lemire and Nancy Benac in Washington contributed to this report.