Already a growing problem for the Garden State, crimes and acts of prejudice have seen an uptick during the ongoing public health crisis and even amid a reignited push for racial equity, the state's attorney general said Thursday.

During a virtual town hall hosted by the Attorney General's Office, the state's top law enforcement officer also voiced concerns over a rise in bias incidents committed by and toward youth.

"This can't be dismissed as kids being kids," Attorney General Gurbir Grewal told about 200 participants.

Preliminary data released by Grewal's office in January recorded a 65% increase in bias incidents from 2018 to 2019. The count of incidents, 944, was the highest on record since 1996.

While a chunk of the increase can be attributed to better reporting, experts place blame on social media, political rhetoric, and a rise in hate group activity.

"People seem to be feeling more free to act on their bias," Rachel Wainer Apter, director of the Division on Civil Rights, said during the webinar.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Grewal said, the state has seen an increase in bias crimes targeting Asian-Americans and other minority groups. That included the vandalism — in the form of coronavirus-related graffiti — of a Chinese restaurant in Wyckoff on Wednesday. The state has also seen an uptick in bias offenses in the wake of social unrest and criminal justice issues, Grewal said.

"We see individuals trying to take this opportunity as a moment to divide citizens and turn citizens against each other," Grewal said.

The COVID-19 crisis is a "perfect fertile ground" for white supremacist groups, according to Weldon Powell, chief of detectives for the Division of Criminal Justice. During the town hall, Powell implored residents to report bias incidents, even ones that can be considered minor.

"If we can meet it at its lowest level, we can stop the escalation and stop the biggest events," Powell said. "I always say that our best success is in the headlines you don't see."

Powell suggested the state has an "excellent blueprint" when investigating bias crimes. For one, the process is the same everywhere in the state. Also, law enforcement agencies are required to submit bias incident reports to the Attorney General's Office.

The state also experienced a large increase in bias and hate incidents between 2016 and 2017. A report issued at the end of last summer showed an increase in youth bias, prompting the creation of an inter-agency task force that aims to combat the problem. Grewal said recommendations should be released soon by the task force.

Grewal said there's a failure to understand, particularly among young people, that acting on hate over the internet is "the same" as acting on it in person.

"It has the same effect on the individual. It has potentially the same criminality, depending on what the conduct is," he said.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.