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Proposal to Fight Rising Crime

BERNARDS TWP. – As part of an area-wide effort to fight rising crime, under a proposed ordinance anyone who ventures onto private property here and tries to open the door of a car or a house to see if it’s unlocked could face a fine and jail time.

The proposal, modeled on an ordinance recently adopted in Summit, was introduced by the Township Committee in a unanimous vote on Tuesday, Feb. 27.

A public hearing in scheduled for 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 12, at town hall on Collyer Lane.

Mayor Jennifer Asay said the Summit ordinance was a topic at a Feb. 22 meeting of the Somerset Hills Safety Committee, a newly formed group consisting of the mayors and police chiefs of the township, Bernardsville, Far Hills, Peapack-Gladstone, Bedminster Township and Bridgewater Township.

The group, which organized on Feb. 5 at the behest of Bedminster Township, has sought to share information on local car thefts and home burglaries, and collaborate on crime prevention measures.

“Part of the reason why this came to be is because I’m working with these other five mayors, and we’re sharing and learning from other communities,” Asay said. “And Chatham’s been affected, Westfield’s been affected, Summit’s been affected.

“We are all learning from that and trying to share best practices and do what we can for our community,” the mayor added. “And I would expect that other Somerset Hills towns will be following suit.”

Under the proposed ordinance, it would be illegal to knowingly enter any private driveway or parking lot in the presence of a parked motor vehicle and, if the vehicle belongs to someone else, pull a door handle or use an electronic device to determine if an electronic key is inside the vehicle.

It would also be illegal to knowingly enter any private property and “turn a doorknob” or take other action to get into a house, apartment or garage the actor has no privilege to be in.

A violation would carry a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first offense and $2,000 for a second offense, imprisonment of up to 90 days, and community service of up 90 days.

Township Attorney John Belardo said the township’s version of the Summit ordinance was “carefully crafted” to “ensure it will withstand any challenges that may arise.

“It’s an added tool in our toolbox to protect against some of the criminal activity that unfortunately has visited the township lately,” Belardo said.

It “allows us to address this at a municipal level though our Judge (Katherine) Howes.”

‘Root Causes’

Committeeman Andrew McNally said some of the root causes of the crime increase “lie with some wrong-headed policies at levels of government above the local one but rather than merely passing the buck … we are using every arrow that we have in our quiver to deal with these things.”

Committeeman Gary Baumann expressed a similar view, saying “progressive policies intended to fairly and equitably reform the criminal justice system have unfortunately created a system that has emboldened criminals and has threatened” the community’s “sense of wellness.”

Committeewoman Ana Duarte McCarthy, the committee’s lone Democrat, backed the proposal but offered another perspective on the crime spike.

She said it was “also a societal issue around people who have not been able to achieve and who have not been given opportunities and unfortunately, that potentially has led to a path where the outcome has resulted in taking to committing crimes because there’s no different pathway or option available, from their perspective.”

Earlier in the meeting, Mayor Asay reported on three anti-crime forums she attended on Thursday, Feb. 22.

She said that at 3 p.m., she was among more than 50 elected officials and law enforcement leaders who participated in a crime webinar roundtable hosted by Rep. Tom Kean Jr., R-7.

At 4 p.m., she said, she participated in the Somerset Hills Safety Committee meeting.

At 7:30 p.m., she said, she attended an “understanding Bernards” series meeting in which township police officers discussed car thefts and home burglaries as well as an increase in fraud schemes.

Also at that meeting, township resident Erin Witte announced the formation of a Bernards Township Law Enforcement Fund, Asay said.

Among those on hand was state Assemblywoman Michele Matsikoudis, R-Somerset, Union, who reported on an anti-crime legislative bill she introduced in the Assembly, Asay said.

The mayor also said she is currently working with the Conference of Mayors to build a bipartisan coalition of New Jersey mayors for critical issues such as “the real need for bail reform at the state level.

“I don’t think public safety or private safety is something that should be political,” she said.


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