By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Reflecting state and national trends, reports of bias incidents are on the rise in Montclair.
And now a recently formed advocacy group for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, AAPI Montclair, is calling on the township to create a “more inclusive Montclair” — specifically asking for more transparency into township policies around bias, more data on bias incidents and sensitivity training for police officers, township employees and members of officials boards and commissions.
Group members say it’s in response to a nationwide rise in hate crimes toward the Asain community, in particular since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last year, reported bias incidents rose by 125% in Montclair, according to state data. A preliminary state Bias Incident Report for 2020 reflects 18 incidents for that year in Montclair, up from eight in 2019. This year through June, 14 reports of bias had already been filed. The reports are compiled from data submitted to the Uniform Crime Reporting system by New Jersey law enforcement agencies and include suspected or confirmed violations of New Jersey’s bias intimidation statute.
Statewide, New Jersey saw a 74% rise in reported anti-Asian incidents, an 84% increase in reported anti-African American incidents and a 42% increase in anti-LGBT incidents in 2020. The state data does not break down incidents locally by demographic groups. Montclair Local has sent township police a public records request for a breakdown of bias crime reports by demographic groups dating back to 2019, and is awaiting a response.
The actual number of incidents is likely much higher than reflected in official tallies, state officials say. “According to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, over half of the victims of hate crimes in the U.S. from 2011 to 2015 did not report them,” the New Jersey State Police website says.
AAPI Montclair co-chair Jeffrey Chang said low reporting rates of bias incidents could be due to a number of factors. Some victims may not be aware of how to report incidents, he said. Some may not speak English as a first language. They may be uncertain whether an incident should be reported, they may fear or distrust law enforcement and they may believe reporting will have little benefit.
Currently, Montclairians who believe they have been victims of or have witnessed acts of hate or bias crime can file complaints with the police department and Montclair’s Civil Rights Commission by emailing email@example.com. The state attorney general’s office also has a form on its website.
But AAPI Montclair seeks what it says would be a more transparent process. The group, in an Aug. 10 letter to township officials including the Montclair chief of police, requested the MPD provide the community with the department’s policy and protocol for investigating and handling reports of bias incidents on its website..
In mid-August, the township posted some information on bias crime reporting to its website. It said anyone looking to report an in-progress incident should call 911, and that reports could be submitted anonymously to firstname.lastname@example.org. It also posted documents with the state Attorney General’s Bias Incident Investigation Standards for law enforcement, and a state flyer explaining what sorts of crimes can be reported, and contact points for filing reports with local and state authorities.
AAPI Montclair, in its letter, had suggested Montclair follow the example of Princeton, which also posts the state flyer to its website, in addition to a police department policy on investigating bias incidents.
Chang said a recent alleged Anti-Asian incident involving a member of the Montclair Police Department illustrates the need for the township to address diversity, equity and inclusion throughout its workforce.
On July 27, a Facebook comment appeared in a Montclair group appearing under the name “Bill Coad,” replying to a poster’s questions about helicopters overhead with “China 19 check” — seemingly a racial reference to COVID-19. The department has since confirmed Bill Coad is a Montclair police officer..
Although police discipline reports are now made public by the state on an annual basis, Chief Todd Conforti told Montclair Local in response to an open records request that those reports only have to be released at the end of the year by law. He said that specific incident remains under investigation.
“An officer doing something like this can cause significant damage with police relations,” Chang said.
According to MPD’s policy on personal use of electronic social media, obtained by Montclair Local through a public records request, “Montclair Police Department personnel are free to express themselves as private citizens on social media sites to the degree that their speech does not impair any working relationships within the Montclair Police Department for which loyalty and confidentiality are important, impede the performance of duties, impair discipline and harmony among coworkers or negatively affect the public perception of the Montclair Police Department.”
Montclair police personnel are prohibited from postings “containing obscene or sexually explicit language, images, or acts and statements or other forms of speech that ridicule, malign, disparage, or otherwise express bias against any race, ethnicity, religion or religious belief, sexual orientation, sexual identity, or any protected class of individuals.”
In response in part to the incident, AAPI Montclair is now requesting that the township and police department provide information about the status of training of all township staff, officials and official bodies on anti-discrimination, anti-bias, diversity and inclusion, and implicit bias. The group also wants information on policies about recruitment and hiring practices, and for a diversity hiring plan to be available to the public. It asks for the police department to provide information on its efforts to diversify its workforce as well.
It asks that the township issue a policy requiring annual training on diversity, equity and inclusion for all official bodies and commissions.
Christa Rappaport, chair of Montclair’s Civil Rights Commission, said for decades the commission, as well as the Montclair NAACP, have looked into any incident of alleged bias reported to the commission.
In 2021 so far, Rappaport said, the commission investigated two incidents of alleged anti-Asain bias. One was deemed unsubstantiated. For the other, the commission is seeking more information.
“We are pleased that the AAPI has organized, is asserting themselves and is partnering with us,” Rappaport said.
Although the state releases bias crime reports on its website annually, AAPI is also asking the Montclair Police Department to provide annual data and information on bias incidents reported to the police department or any other official body or commission.
And the group says in its letter it would like to see the Township develop a community-wide strategic plan to address hate and bias, “and build an inclusive community.”
“We have an opportunity to figure out how community accountability will look,” AAPI co-chair Danielle Iwata said.
Township Manager Tim Stafford and Conforti, who was on vacation for part of August, have not yet responded to an email sent Aug. 24 asking what mechanisms the town employs on diversity training and recruitment in hiring.
AAPI Montclair has begun a sticker campaign, providing businesses with window stickers to show their support of the Asian community. Businesses interested in getting stickers can email AAPI at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: The AAPI Montclair Advocacy Committee that authored the letter discussed above includes Amber Reed, who is married to Justin Jamail, a member of the Montclair Local’s governing board.