Then — as the violence stirred fears in an Asian American community that already felt under attack — Internet sleuths and journalists found Baker’s Facebook posts promoting shirts that called the novel coronavirus an “IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.”
On Thursday, an official said that Baker is no longer a spokesman on the spa shootings case, shortly after the sheriff said “we regret any heartache” caused by Baker’s words but defended the captain.
Andrea DeCourcey, an executive assistant for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, said she did not know why or how Baker was taken off his role updating the public about the spa shootings. The sheriff did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did Baker.
In a letter shared Thursday afternoon, Sheriff Frank Reynolds did not address the “CHY-NA” shirt posts but acknowledged that Baker’s comments had “become the subject of much debate and anger.”
“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 respect for the suspect,” Reynolds wrote.
Baker had a “difficult task before him” in the wake of the shootings — “one of the hardest in his twenty-eight years in law enforcement,” Reynolds added, praising the captain’s work and saying he had “personal ties to the Asian community.”
Baker’s comments and social media history had fueled calls for him to resign amid long-running concerns about racism in law enforcement, capping a year in which many warned that phrases like “China virus” were inciting sometimes-violent prejudice against Asian Americans. For critics, they undermined trust in authorities’ work on an attack that seemed to many inseparable from the race and gender of its victims, even as authorities say the motive remains unclear. And they downplayed the actions of a White suspect who, according to Baker, may have visited the spas before, claimed to have a “sexual addiction” and said he wanted to eliminate a “temptation.”
Baker is not just any employee of the sheriff’s department, some noted, but someone who has shaped public knowledge of the attacks that unfolded Tuesday in his county and then at two businesses in Atlanta.
“All of us have experienced bad days,” tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). “But we don’t go to three Asian businesses and shoot up Asian employees.”
WSB-TV reporter Nicole Carr reported Thursday that the sheriff said Baker’s future with the office is under evaluation and that the sheriff’s office consulted with the district attorney about potentially passing its part of the shootings case to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
But a spokeswoman for the district attorney said Thursday evening that the office is not asking for help from the GBI. “Calling in another agency at this time would be counterintuitive and would only delay the investigation,” said spokeswoman Cyndi Crossland.
District Attorney Shannon Wallace said in a statement that her office is “acutely aware of the feelings of terror being experienced in the Asian-American community. We hear your concerns and want it to be known that these victims will receive the very best efforts of this office.”
“We anticipate beginning to meet with the impacted families in the near future, and earn their trust, as we continue to develop our case against the defendant,” Wallace said.
Baker posted photos of the shirts blaming China for the pandemic last March and April, as Asian American leaders and advocacy groups were already sounding alarms about rhetoric tying the coronavirus to China and Chinese people.
“Covid 19,” the shirt reads in a font resembling the logo of Corona beer. “IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.”
The words echoed those from politicians and especially from President Donald Trump, who used offensive terms like “kung flu” and went out of his way to use the phrase “Chinese virus.” At one point, a Post photographer snapped a picture of the president’s notes in which “corona” was crossed out.
“It’s racist and it creates xenophobia,” Harvey Dong, a lecturer in Asian American and Asian diaspora studies with the University of California at Berkeley, told The Washington Post at the time. “It’s a very dangerous situation.”
Scientists have cast doubt on speculation that the coronavirus came from a Wuhan laboratory, saying they believe it spread to humans from bats through an intermediary animal.
Stop AAPI Hate, a group that gathered thousands of reports of anti-Asian bias over the past year, has said many reported incidents involve anti-Chinese rhetoric and specifically language that blames China for the pandemic.
Reached by the Daily Beast as criticism mounted over the shirt pictures, Reynolds — who is friends with Baker on Facebook — had said he did not know about the post.
“I am not aware of that,” Reynolds told the outlet. “I will have to contact him but thank you for bringing that to my attention.”
Baker’s posts about the shirts surfaced after a year of viral videos, racial justice protests and high-profile killings of Black Americans have raised concerns about racism within police ranks. For some reacting online, the social media posts added to accusations of “White privilege” over the captain’s remarks about Georgia shooting suspect Robert Aaron Long.
“I wonder if these are related …” tweeted writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American, after noting both the shirt photos and the “bad day” phrasing.
Another person’s reaction on Twitter: “I think Capt Jay Baker is going to have a really bad day.”