Law enforcement officials briefed Jewish leaders at a Feb. 9 security seminar held at the South River offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
Local police chiefs urged Jewish institutions to be more vigilant, to take steps to protect themselves, and to form alliances with law enforcement.
Participants at the meeting, held in the wake of a series of anti-Semitic incidents in Middlesex and Bergen counties, included federal, state, county, and local officials and law enforcement personnel.
The program was sponsored by the Middlesex Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks.
“All communities really do the same thing,” said East Brunswick Deputy Police Chief William Krause. “We are in tune. When it comes to protecting targeted groups, we are all on the same page.”
To help strengthen the relationship between the Jewish community and police, he said, several local rabbis serve as police chaplains.
Highland Park Police Chief Stephen Rizco said not only do his officers go through sensitivity training to learn about Jewish culture, but there is a liaison to work with synagogues documenting such information as service times so extra patrols can be assigned.
“I know all the Jewish leaders in town, and they have my personal cell phone number,” said Edison Police Chief Thomas Bryan, whose department also increases patrols around Jewish holidays. “I will answer the phone in the middle of the night and anything I can do for them, I will.”
That bond with local police is an integral part of community protection, said Gerrie Bamira, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County. “In my 20-plus years working in Jewish communal service,” she said, “the most important thing I’ve found is the need to establish a good working relationship with local police so, should an emergency arise, you know it will be taken seriously and you have a friend to turn to.
“You should designate one or two people from your agency or synagogue to have an ongoing relationship with the local police department,” she advised the other Jewish institution representatives at the briefing. “Invite them to visit you.”
Patrick Owens of the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office suggested synagogues and other institutions could improve security by such simple measures as adding lighting, clearing shrubbery from around windows, having an entry reception desk, changing locks regularly, and installing a security system.
He acknowledged the difficulty a synagogue faces balancing openness and safety measures, adding, “When people come in to pray, you expect to have a level of trust.”
‘A fine line’
Chris Lynam, intelligence analyst at the state Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness, said community members should be on the lookout for suspicious behavior. If they see something troubling, it should be reported immediately to local authorities, who could pass it up the chain of command to the federal level if necessary.
Suspicious actions to be on the lookout for include people videotaping or taking photos at a synagogue or center, eliciting information about an institution, testing its security; even people who simply appear to not belong should be noted. The authorities at all levels are aware, Lynam said, that Jews are potential targets.
“Everything is fully shared with our partners in the SARS initiative,” said Lynam. The Security Activities Reporting System is a network through which suspicious activity is disseminated from federal agencies — such as the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces — to state, county, and municipal counter-terrorism coordinators.
Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office investigator Colin Van Demark said that with a number of high-risk targets in the state, county risk management planners often work in concert with others; for example, Middlesex officials were on the phone with Bergen County officials within hours of hearing the first reports of arson at several synagogues there.
“If I drop the ball and someone at the state level doesn’t know, shame on me,” he said. “But if someone at the local level drops the ball, shame on them.” If anyone notices something that arouses suspicion, he said, “Call 9-1-1 and let your local police officers know.”
James Sheehan serves as program manager for the Northern New Jersey-Newark-Jersey City Urban Area Security Initiative, a federal post monitoring security threats in an area near the top of the terrorism hit list.
Suspicion is necessary for “all people — especially those in an area like New Jersey — and especially members of your community, which has been targeted for hate crimes,” said Sheehan, the former police chief in Paramus. However, he also warned that attention should be on behavior, not on ethnicity or race.
Assistant Middlesex prosecutor Cindy Glaser explained the “fine line” between a bias crime, bias intimidation, and offensive speech that is not illegal. If someone were to hurl an anti-Semitic slur at her, for example, it would not be illegal. However, if someone screamed it in front of her house at 2 a.m., waking up her entire family, it might cross over into harassment. Even for experienced law enforcement personnel, determining whether a crime is bias related is often difficult.