Quarterly public meetings between law enforcement and the communities they serve have been running steadily in New Jersey's 21 counties since the middle of 2018.

But, just like essentially everything else in the Garden State, plans for these meetings were turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

So to make up for lost time that should have been devoted to community engagement, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has announced plans to turn his 21/21 initiative (21 County 21st Century Community Policing Project) into a series of virtual town hall meetings open to all New Jersey residents, focusing on important topics related to the novel coronavirus — from fraud and domestic violence, to law enforcement's response to the pandemic.

"This is a great tool that we've realized we now have at our disposal to connect to people much more easily," Grewal told New Jersey 101.5. "We thought, why not turn this into a way to connect with the community at large, and to address concerns that they may have, and to provide information that they may need at this time?"

The four upcoming sessions, the first of which is slated for Wednesday afternoon, will include participation by Grewal, county prosecutors and various experts, depending on the topic at hand. Members of the public can ask questions as well.

The virtual approach, Grewal said, should give these meetings a greater reach. As of early Tuesday afternoon, more than 300 individuals had registered for the 12 p.m. Wednesday virtual town hall meeting, which will focus on the "availability of services for victims and survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Certain "walk-in" functions have been suspended for victims in the wake of the public health emergency, Grewal's office noted, but important services remain just a phone call, email or text message away.

Among others, Grewal will be joined by the executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the executive director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

"While the pandemic requires us to isolate and socially distance, we also understand that provides an ideal setting for an abuser to take advantage of a domestic partner, a spouse, or even abuse a child," Grewal said.

Since the middle of March, the state has seen a steady decline in the number of domestic violence reports. Arrests with domestic violence charges dropped from 469 during the week of March 1-7, to 330 during the week of April 12-18.

"That's because domestic violence is being underreported right now, not because domestic violence has decreased during this pandemic," Grewal said. "We have a pretty good understanding of what the numbers should look like."

Abuse victims are still permitted to enter police departments and file Temporary Restraining Orders, Grewal said. Victim hotlines are operating and police agencies are still responding to 911 calls, he added.

At 4 p.m. on Thursday, April 30, an additional town hall will cover law enforcement's response to COVID-19. Details will be announced soon for virtual town halls related to recovery and addiction services, and fraud.

FIRST RESPONDERS AND THE PANDEMIC: Thursday at 7 p.m., New Jersey 101.5 takes a special live look at the plight of first-responders on the front lines of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and the resources available to help them through an extraordinary time. Listen Live on the 101.5 FM or the New Jersey 101.5 app. Join the conversation and ask your questions in a live chat at Facebook.com/NJ1015.

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

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