SOMERVILLE, NJ – Somerset County Sheriff Darrin Russo has launched a Hate Crimes Awareness and Prevention Unit within his department to help protect the diverse religious, racial, ethnic and other communities in the county.

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.”

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In addition to working with area leaders, the Sheriff’s Office has developed an online reporting tool that residents can use to anonymously report any bias crime, no matter how small or large. A bias incident or hate crime is defined as any suspected or confirmed offense or unlawful act which occurs against a person or property on the basis of New Jersey’s nine protected classes: race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and national origin.

The tool is available at https://bit.ly/3giqqZT, and allows residents who have been a victim of or witnesses to a hate crime to fill out a form with location and incident details. Additionally, residents can upload images, documentation, with .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. “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.

"By creating this new unit, the Sheriff’s Office is demonstrating a commitment to protecting all individuals, religious institutions and other organizations, throughout Somerset County,” said Dr. Alex Kharazi, director, Masjid-e-Ali Mosque in Franklin Township, who has participated in the development of the unit. “Communities that may be targeted for a hate or bias crime now have an ally in raising awareness and preventing future instances."

“The information we receive in e-mail blasts from Sheriff Russo’s office is very informative and helps us raise awareness among our members,” said Laura Friedman, executive director, Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center in Bridgewater Township. “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 on the Sheriff Office’s new Hate Crimes Awareness and Prevention Unit, contact Undersheriff Tim Pino 908-231-7185.