SOMERVILLE, NJ — Somerset County Prosecutor Michael H. Robertson and Somerset County Sheriff Darrin Russo are locked in a dispute over a bias crime/race unit and website created by the sheriff — separate and apart from an already established unit in the prosecutor's office — a development that has resulted in duplicity and will create confusion for the public, according to Robertson.

Robertson also cited the chain-of-command guidelines promulgated by the state Attorney General's Office that he says have been ignored by Russo.

The prosecutor says the sheriff did not consult with him and has failed to respond to a letter and email requesting that Russo remove a link on the sheriff's website to the Hate Crimes Awareness and Prevention Unit page which includes an online reporting tool that residents can use to anonymously report any bias crime to the Sheriff's Department as well as download photos and videos of incidents.

Sign Up for Somerset Hills Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Robertson said he also sent a copy of the original letter to Undersheriff Tim Pino, second in command at the Sheriff's office. 

Russo said he is not "stepping on anyone's toes," and has no intention to accede to Robertson's request. He also defended the Sheriff Department's bias and race initiative because it is linked to community leaders who he says are oftentimes the first authorities people will turn to before reaching out to the local police department or prosecutor's office.

Russo launched the initiative with a series of Zoom meetings online soon after he took office in January.

Because Russo has not responded to him, Robertson on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of issuing a press release to clarify what he says are the proper procedures to follow in an effort to neutralize the sheriff's initiative.

"It's not in my nature to do this, but he's gone too far and I can't allow it to continue, Robertson said.

l"His intent is laudable, to help the community, but he has to collaborate with me due to the very, very, very serious nature of bias crimes and bias incidents," Robertson said. "He's got to follow rules and regulations.

"This should not be difficult," Robertson said.

Robertson said he is also concerned whether the Sheriff personnel have been trained to handle bias incidents and whether the phone link on the Sheriff's website is monitored 24/7 which he said is imperative, suggesting a scenario where a late night phone tip or threat about an event planned to be disruptive or violent the following day would go unnoticed.

Russo said he has adhered to the state Attorney General's directives.

Following is the text of Robertson's press release:

Somerset County Prosecutor Michael H. Robertson and Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office Chief of County Detectives John W. Fodor address a recent press release by Somerset County Sheriff Darrin J. Russo with regard to his announcement of alternative efforts the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office intends to introduce related to bias crime reporting within Somerset County.

Prosecutor Robertson stated that as the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of Somerset County, it is necessary to properly inform and guide the general public of the already existing bias crime reporting methods previously established by the New Jersey State Attorney General’s Office.

In accordance with New Jersey Attorney General’s Office Guidelines, the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office Bias Crimes Unit is the primary law enforcement agency within the County of Somerset that investigates and monitors all bias incidents and hate crimes in coordination with local municipal law enforcement agencies located within its jurisdiction.

Moreover, only the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office and the local municipal police departments within Somerset County have the appropriately established procedures, protocols and specific training that is required in order to properly investigate bias related incidents and crimes.

Prosecutor Robertson stated that pursuant to the Attorney General’s Incident Investigation Standards dated April 5, 2019, the purpose of those standards is to establish uniform procedures for response and investigation of bias incidents due to the very serious nature of these types of investigations.

The County Prosecutor’s Offices throughout the state of New Jersey are tasked with and responsible for making timely notifications to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office of potential bias crime incidents.

Therefore, here in Somerset County, it is the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office Bias Crimes Unit that coordinates all efforts with the reporting and investigation of these cases, which is why it is imperative that the public report these incidents to the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office and/or your local municipal police department.

"The Sheriff, the chiefs of police in each municipality, all have to follow the directives of the county prosecutor's office which come to us from the state Attorney General," Robertson said.

Russo said he created the unit to help protect the diverse religious, racial, ethnic and other communities in the county.

It's also a fulfillment of a promise he made during last year's campaign for Sheriff. Russo, a Democrat, was elected to a three-year term last November, and took office in January. One of his campaign pledges was to create the bias crime initiative, he said. Russo is a retired Franklin Township police officer.

The effort began in January with one-on-one and group meetings with religious, community, and business leaders to build relationships, and has grown to include several large Zoom meetings over the spring and early summer.

“The goal is for me and our Sheriff’s officers to learn from the communities we serve and have dialogues that build relationships and understanding of what law enforcement can do to help,” Russo said.“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 in our communities.”

Russo said he believes more is better than less.

"Our unit is another layer in the system," Russo said. "We are not investigating; we are forwarding information when it comes in. If oeople are more comfortable with the network we've set up with places of worship, they will relay the information to us, and we can pass it on to the local police departments. "The more outlets you have, the better, as long as we work together," he added.

"All we do is transfer their information to local PDs and then they move forward with it," he added.

"We've had nothing but a positive response from clergy and police departments," Russo said.

“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. “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 original goal had been to have a major conference of leaders from all communities that face bias incidents in Somerset County, but the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on meetings delayed the plan. The Hate Crimes Awareness & Prevention Unit has adjusted to reflect the new normal and is planning a Zoom conference for the fall, as well as beginning to assign liaisons who will work with certain communities and be a visible contact.

Robertson, a former federal prosecutor in the US Attorney General's Office in Newark, who was appointed as Somerset County Prosecutor by former Gov. Chris Christie in 2016, pushed back on Russo's assertions.

"He doesn't have policy procedures in place, or the men and women trained to take this on; it's not the function of the Sheriff's office, it is the function of the Prosecutors' office and local law enforcement," Robertson said. "There are Attorney General standards and guidelines that every law enforcement agency is required to follow; the sheriff has not followed those procedures and polices and doesn't have anyone trained to take on these cases," he added.

Robertson said he is also concerned about the lack of oversight and what he says is a disregard for chain-of-command.

"Technically, the Sheriff, as well as all chiefs of police, report to the county Prosector's Office, which is the top law enforcement position in the county," Robertson said. "I need to make sure all law enforcement agencies are following my directives and those of the Attorney General.

"You can't just start up a unit you don't have training for and no procedures or protocol - and it's not your responsibility," he added.

"He's out of his lane; the role of the Sheriff in the state of New Jersey is not to do what he is doing," Robertson said. . . .