Forum stresses need to effectively combat bias crimes and incidents

Just about no one is immune to bias crimes and incidents.

parsippany newspaper
Morris County Prosecutor Fredric M. Knapp

MORRIS COUNTY — “Very few of us have not been victimized by bias,” is how Morris County Prosecutor Fredric M. Knapp put it during a training program on how to combat and report bias crimes and incidents.

Knapp introduced the program and recognized the members of the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office’s Bias Crime Unit, who attended and who participated in a question and answer session with the audience.

The program was co-sponsored by the Morris and Sussex County Prosecutor’s Offices in conjunction with the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and the County Prosecutor’s Association of New Jersey. It was held at the Morris County Public Safety Training Academy in Parsippany and attended by about 75 people, including law enforcement officials, educators, faith-based leaders and interested members of the public.

The program was moderated by David S. Leonardis, the Training and Outreach Liaison, Prosecutors Supervision and Training Bureau of the Division of Criminal Justice, Office of the Attorney General.

There were 367 bias crimes in New Jersey in 2015, according to the New Jersey State Police, 26 of which occurred in Morris County. There were no bias crimes in Sussex County in 2015, but there were four in 2014.

Francis A. Koch, the Sussex County Prosecutor, said bias crimes and incidents generally occur when “groups of people … think they are better than others. We as a community must come together to eliminate this type of hatred.”

The program explored the distinction between a bias crime and a bias incident. A bias crime is a traditional criminal offense committed against individuals solely because of who they are. Bias incidents are race or gender-driven offenses such as harassing comments in the workplace or classroom that do not always rise to the level of a crime.  The state Attorney General’s Office says bias crimes or incidents are acts against individuals or groups because of their race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin or ethnicity.

No matter how offenses are categorized, ignorance often is the motivating factor, according to David D’Amico, chief investigator with the Middlesex County Department of Corrections, and formerly a member of the Asbury Park Police Department. In his presentation, D’Amico said ignorance about people is at the base of a pyramid he uses to describe the genesis of bias crime. He said lack of knowledge about groups of people leads to stereotypes, resentment and ultimately to violent acts, which he placed atop the pyramid.

D’Amico urged the public not to overlook and to report even small instances of bias behavior to law enforcement.  He said education is the key to breaking down stereotypes about different groups of people.

Vered Adoni, an assistant Bergen County Prosecutor, who heads the Bias Crime Unit,  said bias crimes and incidents victimize not only the individual attacked, but all those who share the person’s characteristics. AP Adoni’s presentation dealt with the legal difference between bias crimes and bias incidents.

Another speaker, Assistant Attorney General Philip Freeman,  Deputy Director of the N.J. Division of Civil Rights, stressed that law enforcement agencies throughout the state take reports of bias crimes and incidents seriously and that the public should not hesitate to report them.  Deputy Director Freeman also explained that his office investigates civil violations of state laws against discrimination in addition to criminal violations.

As the State Police noted in an introduction to its 2015 Uniform Crime Report, the latest comprehensive data available, “crimes motivated by hate and bias tend to erode the basic fabric of society.”

Morris County Sheriff James Gannon also delivered opening remarks and reflected on the tragedy in Las Vegas. He said,  “We can put an end to hate. That’s what our mission has to be.” 

Anyone who wishes to report a bias crime should contact either the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office Bias Unit at (973) 285-6200, or the Sussex County Prosecutor’s Office at (973) 383-1570.