Executive order seeks to address ‘rising tide of hate’ in NJ

TRENTON, NJ — On Aug. 7, acting Gov. Sheila Oliver issued an executive order establishing an interagency task force to tackle the problem of bias incidents among students and young adults. The executive order follows the publication of a report by Attorney Gen. Gurbir S. Grewal that shows a “rising tide of hate” in New Jersey.

The new Interagency Task Force to Combat Youth Bias will provide advice and recommendations to the offices of the governor and attorney general, and to other state agencies, on strategies and actions to reduce incidents of hate, bias and intolerance involving students and young adults. The task force will include representatives from eight state agencies and be chaired by Division on Civil Rights Director Rachel Wainer Apter.

The report that prompted the creation of the task force was developed by the New Jersey State Police and Division on Civil Rights. Although past reports have presented numerical analysis of reported bias incidents in New Jersey, this is the first report to include a discussion from the Division on Civil Rights of how New Jersey’s numbers compare to national trends, the potential causes of trends in the data and steps that can be taken to reduce the number of bias incidents. The report has taken on added relevancy following recent mass shootings that appear to have been motivated by the shooters’ hate for particular ethnic or religious groups, according to the state.

According to the report, the number of reported bias incidents in New Jersey in 2018 was 569, which is up from 549 in 2017 and higher than any year since 2011. The report also documents a 32-percent increase in reported bias incidents from 2016 to 2017 — the largest single-year percentage jump in more than a decade.

More than a quarter of the reported bias incidents in 2018 occurred at institutions of higher education, and nearly half of the identified offenders were minors. During the past two years, a total of 284 reported bias incidents occurred on college and university campuses statewide.

“We are deeply disturbed by the upward trend of bias incidents happening nationwide, especially at our public colleges, and Gov. Murphy and I are determined to do everything within our power as a state to stop them,” said Oliver, who serves as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs. “The new Interagency Task Force to Combat Youth Bias is going to help us better understand the source of the problem so we can effectively target and educate the next generation about how to overcome hidden bias and treat each other with the dignity and respect we all deserve. Hate has no home in New Jersey.”

“Bias incidents target individuals because of what they look like, how they worship, or who they love,” Grewal said. “They jeopardize our pursuit of freedom and opportunity. They erode, undermine and attack the identity and heritage of our citizens. They dehumanize people. And they shake the foundations of our cultural and religious institutions. They have no place here in New Jersey. And today we are taking action to end them by focusing on our young people.”

Bias incidents are suspected or confirmed offenses motivated by a victim’s perceived or actual race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, gender identity or gender expression.

New Jersey law defines the crime of bias intimidation as an offense committed to intimidate — or with knowledge that such an action would intimidate — an individual or group of individuals because of the characteristics listed above. Bias offenses can include harassment, assault, terroristic threats, arson, criminal mischief and homicide.

The data contained in the report released Aug. 7 is based on bias incident reports submitted to the New Jersey Uniform Crime Reporting System during 2017 and 2018 by every law enforcement agency in the state, including college campus police departments.

According to the report, 54 percent of all reported bias incidents in New Jersey in 2018 were motivated by the victim’s race, ethnicity or ancestry. Approximately 35 percent of reported bias incidents were motivated by the victim’s religion, and 10 percent were motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity or expression. Less than 1 percent were motivated by a victim’s mental or physical disability.

Bias data for 2017 was nearly the same, with 52 percent of reported bias incidents motivated by race, ethnicity or ancestry; 38 percent motivated by religion; and 10 percent motivated by sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity or expression.

Consistent with a trend that has prevailed throughout the past 13 years, approximately 72 percent of all reported racially-motivated bias incidents in New Jersey in 2017 and 2018 were aimed at black people.

Hispanics were the group most frequently targeted for ethnicity-related bias offenses in 2017 and 2018, and anti-Jewish offenses formed the bulk of reported bias incidents driven by religious prejudice in the past two years — including a combined total of 152 reported swastika incidents.

Comparing the past two years, the new report chronicles a stark increase in youth participation in bias offenses.

In 2017, the data shows that 29.6 percent of all known bias offenders in New Jersey were minors. But in 2018, the percentage of known bias offenders who were minors spiked to more than 46 percent. Overall, the report notes, there were 105 minors documented to be bias offenders in 2018 — a significant increase from the 63 known underage bias offenders reported the prior year.

The data for 2017 and 2018 shows that the majority of known bias offenders in New Jersey were white males, and that harassment, intimidation and vandalism/destruction of property were the most common offenses.

The report characterizes New Jersey’s experience with bias incidents as “consistent with nationwide trends” identified in the latest FBI statistics. Specifically, FBI statistics show that race, ethnicity and ancestry drive nearly 60 percent of bias offenses in the United States, followed by religion at 20.6 percent and sexual orientation at 15.8 percent. 

While much of the report is devoted to bias incident data, it also addresses causal factors and makes recommendations for moving forward. With respect to factors influencing the apparent spike in bias incidents, the report notes that it is possible “at least a portion” of the increase in New Jersey can be traced to more frequent reporting of those offenses to law enforcement.

Under Grewal, law enforcement agencies at every level have hosted events designed to raise public awareness about and encourage reporting of bias incidents. In April, Grewal announced new Bias Investigation Standards which, among other requirements, mandate a victim-centered approach to bias investigations by law enforcement, and electronic reporting of bias incidents.

At the same time, the report notes that scholars and other experts have suggested the increase in reported bias incidents can be attributed to social media, a national proliferation of divisive political rhetoric and an increase in the number of hate groups.

Going forward, the report suggests that while law enforcement and government agencies at all levels must — and have — acted to address the problem of bias, it will take collaborative efforts and “difficult conversations” involving multiple community-level stakeholders to truly help “break down barriers, create connections and foster mutual respect.”

“These community conversations are critically important, because government and law enforcement cannot do this alone,” the report reads.

Consistent with the report’s recommendation, the objectives of the Youth Bias Task Force will include: studying the root causes of hate, bias and intolerance in New Jersey’s schools and universities and among New Jersey’s students and young adults; examining and evaluating existing programs and strategies that are administered by executive departments and agencies to address hate, bias and intolerance in schools and among New Jersey’s students and young adults; reviewing existing law and applicable procedures related to bias in schools and among New Jersey’s students and young adults; reviewing existing programs, curricula and strategies that aim to address hate, bias and intolerance among students and young adults and in schools by creating connections and breaking stereotypes; recommending any necessary changes to existing programs and strategies that are administered by executive departments and agencies, and to existing law and procedures; and recommending how executive departments, agencies and schools should act to reduce hate, bias and intolerance in schools and among New Jersey’s students and young adults.

In addition to seeking information and assistance from relevant state agencies, the task force will pursue “robust engagement” with stakeholders — particularly in communities that are most often the victims of bias crimes and incidents.

The Task Force is assigned to meet “as soon as practicable” to begin its work, and is to issue a report outlining its findings and recommendations to the governor, attorney general and public within six months.

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