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Jay Baker, sheriff’s spokesman in Atlanta-area spa shootings, criticized for anti-Chinese posts

Activists hold signs outside a massage parlor.
Activists demonstrate outside Youngs Asian Massage on Wednesday in Acworth, Ga., one of three spas where deadly shootings took place.
(Curtis Compton / Associated Press)

The hashtag began to appear on social media not long after the man first spoke on national television Wednesday: #JayBakerResign.

As the nation clamored for answers in the deadly shootings of eight people at Atlanta-area spas — six of them women of Asian descent — the spokesman for the sheriff’s department in Cherokee County, Ga. seemed to play down the news.

After the arrest of Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old charged with murder for the deaths, Capt. Jay Baker told reporters that Long was having “a really bad day.” He described a man suspected of a killing rampage as someone who was “fed up” and at the “end of his rope.” As to growing concerns about whether there was anti-Asian racism at play in the crimes, Baker said Long instead blamed his “sex addiction.”

Robert Aaron Long of Woodstock, Ga., was arrested Wednesday after seven women and one man were killed. Questions persisted about his motives.

On social media, Asian Americans and civil rights activists were quick to criticize Baker’s description of the suspected mass killer. The words “sympathetic” and “casual” were often used by those objecting to the Sheriff’s Office spokesman’s behavior.

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By Thursday, calls were mounting online for Baker to leave the department after screenshots circulated of a Facebook account that appears to belong to him promoting sales of an anti-Asian T-shirt.

“Place your order while they last,” a post under his name from March 2020 says with a smiley-face emoji and images of shirts that said “Covid 19 IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.” The Facebook account, which also had several photos of Baker in his uniform, appeared to be deleted Wednesday evening.

The misspelling of “China” mimics how former President Trump pronounced the country’s name. Civil rights organizations criticized Trump over the last year of his presidency for his insistence on using the phrases “China virus,” “Wuhan virus” and “kung flu” to refer to the coronavirus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China.

Similar language has been used in many anti-Asian harassment incidents and attacks in the last year, according to recently released data from Stop AAPI Hate, a tracking group that documented thousands of anti-Asian incidents in the U.S. Data from police departments in major cities in 2020 showed the year to be one of the worst on record for anti-Asian hate crimes even as overall hate crimes dropped.

With the social media post and criticism mounting, the department announced Thursday afternoon that Baker was replaced as the spokesman in the investigation.

In the statement, Cherokee County Communications Director Erika Neldner said she will be handling media questions related to Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office’s investigation into the slayings. No information was given as to Baker’s status in the department.

Baker did not reply to phone and email messages from The Times seeking comment. According to a profile published on the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office website, he is a lifelong resident of the county and has worked for the department for 28 years. Before becoming its spokesman, he worked in the adult detention center, uniform patrol division, a multi-agency narcotics squad and in criminal investigations.

In an earlier statement Thursday, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Baker’s comments “have become the subject of much debate and anger.”

“Inasmuch 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,” the sheriff said.

“There are simply no words to describe the degree of human suffering experienced” in the deaths, and “Capt. Baker had a difficult task before him” on “one of the hardest” days of his career, Reynolds said.

The sheriff’s department and police in Atlanta, where spa shootings also took place, have said that investigations are ongoing and that hate crime charges have not been ruled out.

Baker’s critics included Po Murray, the chairman of the Newtown Action Alliance, an anti-gun violence organization founded after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“I am calling on Capt. Jay Baker to resign. He tried to humanize the Atlanta killer & suggested the shooting was not a hate crime. Last year, he promoted racist shirts blaming China for the pandemic,” Murray tweeted Wednesday.

Gregory Cendana, co-founder of the Washington-based People’s Collective for Justice and Liberation, said he wasn’t surprised when he learned that the Sheriff’s Office spokesman had promoted the T-shirt.

“Knowing that the history of police is rooted in anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity to uphold white supremacy, it is not a surprise that the police spokesman had an anti-Chinese COVID shirt,” said Cendana, who is Filipino American and whose organization has focused on civil rights for Asian Americans.


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