SOMERSET COUNTY, NJ - Somerset County Sheriff Darrin Russo has launched a Hate Crimes Awareness & Prevention Unit to help protect the diverse religious, racial, ethnic and other communities in the county, according to a release.

The effort, the release said, began in January with one-on-one and group meetings with religious, community and business leaders to build relationships, and has also grown to include a number of Zoom meetings over the spring and early summer.

"The goal is for myself and our sheriff's officers to learn from the communities we serve, and have dialogs that build relationships and understanding of what law enforcement can do to help," Russo said in the release. "Whether it is a yelled slur from a car window, racist graffiti at a park or property damage intended to intimidate, the Somerset County Sheriff's Office is committed to reducing and hopefully eliminating hate crimes."

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The office has developed an online reporting tool for residents to anonymously report any bias crime, no matter how small or large.

The release said a bias incident or hate crime is defined as any suspected or confirmed offense or unlawful act that occurs against a person or property based on the state's nine protected classes, race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and national origin.

Residents can find the tool at https://bit.ly/3giqqZT, and allows residents to fill out the form with location and incident details. In addition, they can upload images, documentation and .zip file videos.

"The community's input is vital in aiding the identification of a potential crime, and with this tool, the public can become an extension of our sheriff's office as the eyes and ears throughout Somerset County," Russo said in the release. "Hate crimes promote fear and anxiety in victims and the public. Our goal is to prevent such crimes from recurring, building momentum and even eliminating future occurrences."

The release said the original goal had been to have a major conference of leaders from all communities that face bias incidents in Somerset County, but everything was delayed by COVID-19. The Hate Crimes Awareness & Prevention Unit has adjusted to reflect the new normal and is planning a Zoom conference for the fall.

"The information we receive in email blasts from Sheriff Russo's office is very informative and helps us raise awareness among our members," Laura Friedman, executive director of the Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center in Bridgewater, said in the release. "It is a comfort to see sheriff's officers meet with our executive staff, or just drive through our parking lot to show they are protecting us. We thank the sheriff's office for all they do to ensure the safety of our Somerset County community."

For more information, contact Undersheriff Tim Pino at 908-231-7185.