To address what Mayor Sean Spiller described as a “a disturbing trend of hate groups, including white supremacists and neo-Nazis targeting our community,” Montclair will launch an anti-hate task force.

In late December, Spiller made the announcement on his Facebook page: “Montclair’s reputation as a diverse and welcoming township makes us a target for those who do not share our values. ...To help us fight back, Montclair has been awarded a $300,000 grant from the Department of Justice to form an Anti-Hate Crime Community Task Force.”

The grant comes through an application by the Montclair Police Department, but Spiller described the task force as one that will involve stakeholders from throughout the community. 

For several years, Montclair police logged less than 10 bias incidents per year – but the numbers have increased more recently. There were four reports in 2015 and six in 2016, with a slight dip back down to five in 2017 and just one in 2018, according to Uniform Crime Report data compiled from local police agencies’ reports.

The figure then jumped up to eight in 2019, and to 20 in 2020, according to the UCR data. Reports for 2021 aren’t yet complete, but there were 18 incidents logged by September.

In May of 2020, residents and law enforcement began finding stickers for the white nationalist group Patriot Front throughout Montclair.

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Patriot Front as an offshoot of Vanguard America, a neo-Nazi group that had been involved in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. It says Patriot Front “focuses on theatrical rhetoric and activism that can be easily distributed as propaganda for its chapters across the country.” Its stickers and pamphlets have been seen in several New Jersey communities in recent years

In the 2021 data available so far, there were six reports of Patriot Front stickers and one report of antisemitic graffiti in the schools.. 

Among the 20 bias incidents logged in 2020, 11 were antisemitic, three were against African Americans, three were anti-LGBTQ, two were anti-white and one was anti-Asian, according to the reports.  

In the 18 reports logged so far for 2021, seven were antisemitic, two were against African Americans, seven were anti-LGBTQ, one was anti-white, one was anti-Hispanic and one was anti-Asian.  

Spiller told Montclair Local that the task force will be made up of representatives from community organizations, the school system, higher education partners, the police department and “any others with a noted interest. 

“The grant has a specific framework to ensure all groups will have a seat at the table,” he said. “The grant does not limit the number. It is designed to be as inclusive as possible. In addition to community partners, engaged residents, representatives from Montclair State University, faith-based leaders and our schools, it will tie in with representatives from the police department and representatives from Essex County Prosecutor's Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy.”

The funding, he said, will allow for training, events to raise awareness around prevention and reporting of bias crimes. 

“It has dollars to help with staffing around the work, dollars to offset municipal staff time and police department time. There are funds for producing materials and also sharing those out. It calls for data collection, analysis and reporting and the creation of a bias incident anonymous tip line,” Spiller said.

Christa Rappport of the Montclair Civil Right Commission and Cary Chevat of Montclair’s branch of the NAACP said last week that they had not yet been approached about the task force.  

Jeffrey Chang, co-chair of Asian American Pacific Islanders Montclair’s Advocacy Committee, said the group was not aware of the initiative, but last year had discussions with the Montclair Police Department about creating a bias task force, and more training for police and township employees. In August, the group sent a letter to the mayor and council calling for additional resources to address bias and hate, including a community-wide strategic plan.

AAPI Montclair wrote to the mayor and council after a comment appeared in the Facebook group “Secret Montclair,” under the name “Bill Coad,” replying to a poster’s questions about helicopters overhead, saying the activity was a “China 19 check” — seemingly a racial reference to COVID-19, which began in Wuhan, China. Other commenters quickly noticed the name matched that of a Montclair police officer. In September, the officer was disciplined by the department after an investigation determined that the post had violated departmental rules and regulations.

“Stopping hate and supporting inclusion requires the collective effort of our entire community. We are pleased to learn about this major grant and we hope to work with other community groups and stakeholders on this task force to prevent and address bias and hate,” Chang said.

According to information about the award published on the Bureau of Justice Assistance website, Montclair’s project began its planning phase beginning Oct 1, 2021 and will operate on a grant-funded basis until Sept. 30, 2024. The task force will implement established best practices in combating hate crimes through community collaboration, it says.

The project will also provide for the formation of a Bias Crimes Unit in Montclair, expanding on an existing bias crime officer position. It will support department-wide training on hate crimes reporting and investigation, community trust building and cultural competency, according to the bureau.

By September 2024, the Montclair Police Department will have created shareable and scalable curricula for training police officers, emergency service dispatchers and community members on identifying and reporting hate crimes while supporting victims and witnesses, according to the bureau. Montclair will also have robust data on hate crimes and bias incidents within the township, it says.

“In the last two years, hate crimes have been on the rise across the United States, reaching their highest nationwide levels in over a decade,” the description of the award on the bureau site says. “Unfortunately, Montclair is no exception: The township has been rocked by bias incidents targeting community members from multiple groups, including on the basis of religion, race, and sexual orientation. The design of this program emphasizes that hate crimes affect the whole community, and that the whole community must be engaged with efforts to prevent them to seek justice for both individual victims and the community as a whole.”

With any grant Montclair receives, the Township Council must pass a resolution accepting the funds. Spiller did not say when the resolution accepting the grant would be on the council’s agenda.