N.J. attorney general presents new guidelines for handling hate crimes

The office of A.G. Gurbir Grewal released guidelines for handling bias crimes and calls on Facebook to monitor Ocean County group ‘inciting violence against Orthodox Jews.’

This Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017 image shows a white supremacist carrying a Nazi flag into the entrance to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va. (Steve Helber/AP Photo)

This Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017 image shows a white supremacist carrying a Nazi flag into the entrance to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va. (Steve Helber/AP Photo)

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

Amid a rise in bias crimes, both statewide and nationally, New Jersey’s attorney general has issued new guidelines for law enforcement to follow in handling complaints. These criteria include an expanded definition of bias incidents, and require police and prosecutors to offer timely and sensitive responses to victims and the community.

At the same time, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s office has asked Facebook to monitor the page of an Ocean County group that the state contends is “inciting violence against Orthodox Jews” in and around Lakewood. That group, Rise Up Ocean County, has also been condemned by the Lakewood Township Committee and the Ocean County freeholders. Rise Up says it is not anti-Semitic and its goal is “to preserve the quality of life that residents of Ocean County have enjoyed for decades.”

The state’s chief law enforcement officer issued notices of both the new standards and the request to Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg almost simultaneously last week.

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Keeping the guidelines up to date

This is the first time the guidelines for investigating bias incidents have been updated since 2000. They reflect amendments to the state’s bias intimidation law, which took effect in 2008.

“With bias incidents trending upward in recent years — fueled unquestionably by certain individuals and groups who exploit hatred and intolerance — it is critical that we employ best practices in investigating and reporting these incidents, and addressing their impact on victims and the community,” Grewal said in a statement.

It’s unclear how many hate crimes are committed in New Jersey. Figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation tend to be lower than those issued by the state police. The FBI reported 282 incidents in 2016; the state police mounted 386 investigations that led to 417 offenses. The FBI reported 495 incidents in New Jersey in 2017, a 75 percent increase according to their data and the fifth-highest rate — 5.5 incidents per 100,000 residents — among the states and the District of Columbia. The state police have yet to release data for 2017.

Staying silent about hate crimes

New Jersey law enforcement officials also say they believe hate crimes go under-reported; some victims fear reprisals for alerting the police to incidents.

The revised guidelines emphasize quick action and helping victims and communities to try to minimize fear and trauma.

“All suspected or confirmed bias incidents are serious and should be treated as such,” reads the introduction to the standards. “Bias incident investigations shall be conducted in a timely fashion using all appropriate resources to rapidly determine the facts and circumstances surrounding each incident. Careful attention should be given to identifying the motive and cause of the bias incident and to identifying suspects.”

“Law enforcement must be prepared, from the moment a potential bias incident is reported, to conduct a thorough and complete investigation, while treating victims in a sensitive and supportive manner,” Grewal said. “We cannot allow those who perpetrate these crimes to succeed in sowing seeds of fear and tension among victims and the community at large. Law enforcement in New Jersey stands united with our diverse communities in pushing back against prejudice and hatred.”

Among the most significant changes, the new criteria:

  • streamline reporting of all bias incidents by law enforcement agencies in New Jersey, with the reports submitted through the state police’s new Electronic Uniform Crime Reporting;
  • require all county prosecutors to notify the attorney general’s office when pursuing bias-intimidation charges;
  • include in the definition of bias those targeted because of their disability, gender, gender identity or expression, and national origin, in addition to the previously covered race, color, religion, sexual orientation, and ethnicity;
  • expand the definition of “bias incident” to encompass any suspected or confirmed violation of the statute, providing a more comprehensive list of crimes and disorderly person offenses;
  • clarify that to qualify as a bias incident, the suspect and victim do not need to be from a different group or groups covered under the statute;
  • require the immediate notification of an incident to both the state Division of Criminal Justice and the county prosecutor when it involves certain violent crimes, a law enforcement officer as the alleged perpetrator, an organized hate group, or has the potential to generate large-scale unrest.

Additionally, the standards require continuing education for law enforcement on bias crimes and cultural sensitivity and updating of basic training for police recruits in these areas. The AG’s Community-Law Enforcement Affirmative Relations Institute has developed a mandatory course in Cultural Diversity, De-Escalation and Bias Crime Reporting that covers police interactions with various faiths and cultures, as well as recognizing and reporting bias crimes.

Grewal’s office developed the revised standards with input from state and county law enforcement officers, as well as a number of organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, Garden State Equality, New Jersey Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, and Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Fighting hate on Facebook

At the same time as it issued standards, the state took action to try to stop the spread of what it considers hate speech through the Rise Up Ocean County Facebook page.

In her letter to Zuckerberg, Rachel Wainer Apter, director of the state Division on Civil Rights, said, “You at Facebook also have a role to play in monitoring comments that incite violence based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, ancestry, and disability.”

Her letter states that a review by the division of the RUOC page found posts, comments, and videos that promoted violence against Orthodox Jews, including “We need to get rid of them like Hitler did,” “when they resist, bulldoze them” and “…the gang war has begun.”

The social media company responded in a statement, “Facebook does not tolerate hate speech or direct attacks on people on the basis of characteristics like race, ethnicity and national origin. We appreciate the New Jersey Attorney General’s attention to this matter and are working with the Division of Civil Rights to identify specific content on this Facebook Page that may violate our terms so we can remove it immediately.”

The spokesman referred to Facebook’s “community standards” regarding hate speech. These state, “We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability. We also provide some protections for immigration status. We define attack as violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation.”

Rise Up denies it’s anti-Semitic

The About section of RUOC’s Facebook page states, “Let’s start with what we are not. We are NOT anti-Semitic, in fact we welcome all faiths to our efforts and more specifically embrace our friends in the orthodox Jewish community. This is NOT about a specific religion, this is about equal treatment under the law and mutual respect for others.”

In response to an NJ Spotlight email, RUOC said, “Any allegation that our group incites violence toward the orthodox Jewish community is patently absurd and can only be made by someone that has not seen our content. Hate has no home at Rise Up Ocean County, it never has and it never will.”

Apter’s letter states that the Rise Up Ocean County page “appears to have been created in late 2018 to oppose what it calls the overdevelopment of Lakewood, New Jersey, by Orthodox Jews.” Among other assertions, RUOC states that the quality of life in Ocean County is “under assault” and that a group of Orthodox Jewish rabbis “who control the fate of Lakewood” is leading an intended “colonization” of the township.

In its email to NJ Spotlight, the group explained its focus: “We see the continued development of high-density housing in and around Lakewood as a serious threat to that quality of life due to the impact that it has on our environment, our infrastructure and the draining of public school resources to support private, religious schools.”

The group said the administrators of its Facebook page spend about 80 hours a week monitoring the comments sections. They claim they’ve set profanity filters to the highest levels, banned a number of inflammatory words, and deleted comments deemed inappropriate. The group also argued that it would report any credible threats to law enforcement.

“The Attorney General has asked Facebook to monitor our page, we welcome that scrutiny,” the group’s email continued. Despite “hundreds of challenges,” Facebook has removed only one post in six months. “We remain confident that Facebook will continue to support the expression of free speech in the responsible manner in which we exercise it.”

The logo on RUOC’s Facebook page includes its name over a number of religious symbols and the slogan “United Against Anti-Gentilism.”

According to its Facebook page, which has 11,398 followers, Rise Up Ocean County is managed by eight people in the United States, none of whom are named. It features a stock photo on its About page, which shows a smiling group of multiracial men, women, and children. RUOC also has a website, where one post says it has an email list of 19,000. The owner of the website is not available because the site was registered by a proxy service.

RUOC’s email defends its need for anonymity because “group members have come under attack,” including calls to employers alleging they are anti-Semitic. Members also fear physical violence.

Apter’s letter also cited as problematic a comment on the RUOC page, which she said the administrators “liked,” that stated, “Toms River people need to declare war. Surrounding towns will come and join the fight. Wake up people. VOTES WON’T FIX THIS.”

She also noted that RUOC parodied “First They Came …” — the famous poem written by a German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller, to condemn the silence of Germans during the Holocaust. In the RUOC parody, according to Apter, “the poem was invoked to encourage individuals not to be silent in the face of Orthodox Jews moving to Lakewood.”

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