By Sarah N. Lynch and Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth on Sunday expressed doubts about FBI Director Chris Wray's initial assessment that the fatal shooting of six Asian women in Atlanta-area spas may not constitute a hate crime, saying it "looks racially motivated."
"From where I sit, I want to see a deeper investigation into whether or not these shootings and other similar crimes are racially motivated," Duckworth, who is one of only two Asian-Americans currently serving in the U.S. Senate, told CBS "Face the Nation."
"It looks racially motivated to me," she said, adding the caveat that she is not a police officer or personally investigating the crimes.
Police in Atlanta are still investigating the motive in connection with the fatal shooting of eight people, six of whom were Asian women, on Tuesday. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is assisting with the investigation.
In an interview with NPR last week, Wray said that it "does not appear" that race factored into the mass shooting.
Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," also questioned that assessment, suggesting he believes race played a role.
"We all know hate when we see it," he said. "It is tragic that we've been visited by this kind of violence yet again."
The shootings have stoked fears among those in the Asian-American Pacific Islander community, which has reported a spike in hate crimes since March 2020 when then-President Donald Trump began referring to COVID-19 as the "China virus."
Suspected gunman Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old Atlanta-area resident who is white, told police that sexual frustration led him to commit the violence.
Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office Captain Jay Baker, who told the media in a press conference that a sexual addiction may have fueled the crime and said Long had had "a really bad day," has since come under criticism from political leaders and civil rights advocates for making insensitive comments. They noted such remarks only fuel stigmas about race, gender and sex work.
The sheriff's office later acknowledged the remarks had sparked anger, but said Baker never intended to offend anyone. Baker is no longer serving as a spokesman for the case.
The incidence of hate crimes against Asian-Americans rose by 149% in 2020 in 16 major cities compared with 2019, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
Duckworth is among a growing number of Asian-American lawmakers who have urged law enforcement to more carefully examine the escalating violence.
"It looks to me that he knew he was going to places where disproportionately the people he shot up would be Asians, and female, and I think the investigators need to really look at these facts," Representative Ted Lieu, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN last week, referring to Long.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visited Atlanta on Friday to offer support to Asian-Americans and meet with leaders of the community.
Biden on Sunday also highlighted the need to prevent gender-based violence and keep women safe.
"In the past few weeks, we’ve seen too many examples of horrific and brutal assaults on women, including the tragic murders in Georgia...It hurts all of us, and we all must do more to create societies where women are able to go about their lives free from violence," he said in a statement.
The Justice Department has previously said it will step up investigations into hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Duckworth said on Sunday she has written a letter to Wray and Attorney General Merrick Garland asking them to take a deeper look at whether hate crimes are going under-reported.
A Justice Department spokesman confirmed receiving the letter and said it was under review.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Valerie Volcovici; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)