ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office held a virtual town hall event on Feb. 9 to address safety concerns in the Jewish faith-based community; acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens II and other ECPO employees discussed threat and risk assessments for Jewish houses of worship and took questions from audience members. The event was held in reaction to a hostage situation at a synagogue in the Dallas, Texas, area on Jan. 15.
“For some reason, whether it’s due to COVID or not, the past two years seem to have caused the world to confront what most would agree is an increase in hate-filled rhetoric and action,” Stephens said at the event. “As a group, the Jewish community has been victimized by this phenomenon as much as any.”
Stephens, who is black, said that during Black History Month the Jewish community can be celebrated for being heavily involved in the civil rights movement and founding 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 the white people who were involved in that struggle. It’s a goal of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office to always act to protect them. One way to do so is to provide educational programs such as tonight’s town hall.”
Kate Lyons-Boswick and Jesse David Stalnaker, both assistant prosecutors in the Special Victims Unit of the ECPO, were at the meeting to discuss bias investigations.
“A lot of you may have heard the term ‘hate crime,’” Stalnaker said at the event. “Hate crime and bias intimidation crime are very similar crimes; however, I would note that New Jersey’s statute is very particular in terms of bias intimidation. It’s not enough to commit an offense with having hate in your heart — it has to be that you are committing a crime with the purpose to intimidate that protected group.”
New Jersey has nine protected classes that fall under the statute: race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, and ethnicity.
“If anyone commits a crime against a group or a perceived member of that group with the purposes to essentially alarm or intimidate them, that would fall under our bias intimidation law,” Stalnaker said. “That could be vandalism at places of worship or physical attacks on someone. What is the more prevalent occurrence in the state of New Jersey are what’s known as bias incidents. They are something that is essentially bias related but don’t rise to a level of bias crime.”
He used the example of two drivers getting into a fender bender accident, and one driver, seeing that the other may be part of a protected class, calls them slurs.
“They’re not calling you those slurs because you’re of that class, necessarily, but rather they’re upset over the fender bender and are using that language to rile you up,” Stalnaker said. “That’s what’s known as a bias incident, versus a bias crime. That’s not saying you shouldn’t report a bias incident. That allows us to investigate it to see if it does rise to the level of bias crime.”
Gregory W. Ehrie, a former FBI agent in the New York intelligence division, also spoke at the meeting. Now retired from law enforcement, Ehrie is the vice president of law enforcement and analysis at the Anti-Defamation League, acting as a liaison between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
“In the last three years, we’ve seen the highest rate of antisemitism that we’ve seen in over 40 years,” Ehrie said about the FBI’s annual report. “That’s bad enough, but the scarier part is that the data is incomplete. Over 80 percent of agencies who can report do not. So we know the picture is incomplete, and we know the numbers aren’t going to get better.”
Ehrie’s job at the ADL is to work with law enforcement agencies to educate them about spotting hate crimes and bias incidents and how to investigate them. But even though the reports of hate and bias crimes look bleak, Ehrie said there is reason for optimism.
“The optimistic side is that it’s a team effort,” he said. “We don’t bring any of these efforts solo. We work with the communities, we work with law enforcement and we work together. We know what the problem is, and we know it’s getting worse. We have to work together to combat it.”