Suffolk wants all towns to form or reestablish anti-bias task forces

Rabbi Dr. Steven Moss, center, of B'nai Israel Rabbi Dr. Steven Moss, center, of B'nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale speaks to various anti-bias task force members from around Suffolk County in the Huntington Library at Suffolk County Community College on Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. Photo Credit: Brad Penner

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Suffolk County is spearheading an effort to form and reactivate anti-bias task forces in all towns so that incidents of prejudice can be addressed and prevented.

Jennifer Blaske, executive director of the county Human Rights Commission, said the towns of Smithtown, Islip, Southampton, Southold and East Hampton all have active task forces.

Other towns either don't have a task force, have one that is inactive or are re-establishing a force, she said.

Suffolk reported 117 hate crimes in 2012, the most recent data available show, the second-highest total of any county in the state.

Working with schools, hospitals and other local institutions, the task forces educate about diversity and respond when there is a bias incident. The Suffolk County Inter-Faith Anti-Bias Task Force was formed in 1984 and is co-chaired by the Rev. JoAnn Barrett of the Gathering of Light Interspiritual Fellowship in Melville and Rabbi Steven Moss of B'nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale. They began working on uniting the towns last year, Moss said, spurred by residents saying "we've got to bring the task forces together as a united community."

Moss said the hope is that the towns develop communications to share program ideas and also call on each other when incidents come up.

Babylon, which is re-establishing its task force, last month altered its code -- reducing the number of members and the frequency of meetings -- in an effort to make meeting more manageable.

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"We hope to have a highly active group of diverse individuals," said Deputy Town Attorney Afreen Rizwan, who is on the task force.

Some towns have the task forces written into their code, while other towns have informal volunteer groups, Barrett said. Task forces are largely made up of citizen volunteers.

"The key here is everyone in the community can participate in these programs, you don't have to have a title or an office," Moss said.

At the first joint towns meeting held by the county last week, several towns were a no-show, including Babylon, Huntington and Brookhaven.

Rizwan said there was a scheduling mistake but the town is moving forward. A.J. Carter, spokesman for Huntington, said the town is not reactivating its force but did not provide further explanation. Brookhaven spokesman Jack Krieger said the town's force is active but Barrett said it doesn't appear to be.

Riverhead Councilman Jim Wooten said the town's task force has been dormant for more than a year.

He said he thought the town should reactivate it. "I think it's important just for dialogue," he said.

Moss said there's another reason.

"I've always felt that they serve as a beacon of hope to communities and individuals to say that no one ever has to feel helpless in the face of bias and prejudice," he said.

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