ESSEX COUNTY, NJ – The Essex County Attorney’s Office hosted a virtual town hall event on February 9 to address safety concerns in the Jewish faith community; Acting Essex County District Attorney Theodore N. Stephens II and other ECPO staff discussed threat and risk assessments for Jewish places of worship and answered questions from members of the public. The event took place in response to a hostage-taking at a Dallas, Texas-area synagogue on January 15.
“For whatever reason, whether due to COVID or not, the past two years seem to have brought the world to face what most would agree to be an increase in hateful rhetoric and action,” Stephens said during the event. “As a group, the Jewish community has been victimized by this phenomenon as much as anyone.”
Stephens, who is black, said that during Black History Month, the Jewish community can be celebrated for their strong involvement in the civil rights movement and the founding of many civil rights organizations.
“American Jews played a significant role in founding and funding many civil rights organizations during the civil rights movement,” Stephens said. “Jewish activists represented a disproportionate amount of white people involved in this struggle. It is a goal of the Essex County District Attorney’s Office to always act to protect them. One way to do this is through educational programs such as tonight’s town hall.
Kate Lyons-Boswick and Jesse David Stalnaker, both assistant prosecutors with ECPO’s Special Victims Unit, were at the meeting to discuss bias investigations.
“Many of you may have heard the term ‘hate crime,'” Stalnaker said at the event. “Hate crimes and crimes of harmful intimidation are very similar crimes; however, I would point out that New Jersey law is very particular in terms of bias bullying. It is not enough to commit an offense with hatred in your heart – you must commit a crime in order to intimidate this protected group.
New Jersey has nine protected classes that fall under the law: race, color, religion, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, and ethnic origin.
“If someone commits a crime against a group or an alleged member of that group for the primary purpose of alarming or intimidating them, that would fall under our biased intimidation law,” Stalnaker said. “It could be vandalism to places of worship or physical attacks on someone. What is most common in the state of New Jersey are bias incidents. It is something that is essentially related to prejudice, but does not rise to the crime level of prejudice. »
He used the example of two drivers getting into a fender bending accident, and one driver, seeing that the other may be in a protected class, calls them insults.
“They don’t call you those slurs because you’re of that class, necessarily, but rather they get upset with the fender bender and use that language to annoy you,” Stalnaker said. “It’s called a bias incident, as opposed to a bias crime. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report an incident of bias. This allows us to investigate to see if it reaches the crime level of bias.
Gregory W. Ehrie, a former FBI agent from the New York Intelligence Division, also spoke at the meeting. Now retired from law enforcement, Ehrie serves as vice president of law enforcement and analysis at the Anti-Defamation League, serving as a liaison between law enforcement agencies. federal, state and local.
“Over the past three years, we’ve seen the highest rate of anti-Semitism we’ve seen in over 40 years,” Ehrie said of the FBI’s annual report. “It’s bad enough, but the scariest thing is that the data is incomplete. Over 80% of organizations that can report do not. So we know the picture is incomplete and we know the numbers are not going to improve. »
Ehrie’s job at the ADL is to work with law enforcement to educate them on spotting hate crimes and bias incidents and how to investigate them. But even as reports of hate crimes and bias seem grim, Ehrie said there are reasons for optimism.
“The optimistic side is that it’s a team effort,” he said. “We don’t do any of these solo efforts. We work with communities, we work with law enforcement and we work together. We know what the problem is and we know it is getting worse. We must work together to fight it. »