South River BOE member posted anti-Islam hate while working as cop
SOUTH RIVER — A Board of Education member spent years posting messages, memes and videos against Muslims and refugees on his public Facebook page while working as a borough police officer. He retired in June without ever facing discipline for the online activity.
Typical messages posted by Kevin J. Nielsen (see below) included one in 2011 in which he said "I hate the religion of love." Another post that year endorsed the message of former Republican congressman Allen West, whose Army career ended in 2004 after being fined for torturing an Iraqi captive. In the video, West says Islam is "not a religion" and that violence committed in its name "is not a perversion. They are doing exactly what this book (the Koran) says."
Numerous other posts on his personal page and Facebook group for borough residents, dating from 2011 until this year, appear to conflate all Muslims and refugees with terrorists and violence. Other posts denigrate "Coexist" bumper stickers, people protesting police brutality, drag queens and trans people, and compare President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler.
Nielsen on Tuesday declined to comment for this story but the police chief and the schools superintendent distanced themselves from his posts.
Neilsen appears to have gotten little pushback from people who followed him online.
One commenter as recently as April challenged Nielsen by saying that he could not “fathom why you were never disciplined for anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ comments while working for the town [...] You don’t belong in public office.”
Nielsen answered: “Because I speak the truth? How do you call yourself a religion of piece (sic) yet you throw gay people off of buildings, throw lye in the face of women and kill people because they don’t believe in the same god as you?”
James Sues, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, said the posts "are, of course, offensive to any Muslim who would come across them."
"I think an apology is in order, and if Mr. Nielsen can’t find it in his heart to apologize I think that he should resign," Sues said after New Jersey 101.5 provided him with screenshots of Nielsen's posts.
Nielsen was last elected to the Board of Education in 2016 with 1,540 votes and was first elected in 2010. He is up for election again this year.
Nielsen retired from the police force in June after 35 years in service. The anti-Islam posts were made while he was an officer and sergeant. In 2016, he was named a New Jersey Devils' Hero of the Game on Police Appreciation Night for spearheading a clothing drive for families displaced by a fire. In May, the department presented Nielsen with a letter of commendation "for his efforts to quickly solve a residential burglary and theft" of a home whose owner had recently died.
Police Chief Mark Tinitigan on Tuesday said he saw Nielsen's Facebook posts for the first time when New Jersey 101.5 provided them to him.
"If I was aware at the time they were posted on Facebook, we would have had an internal affairs investigation conducted," he said.
Tinitigan said that while officers have a First Amendment right to their own opinions, they also have to uphold certain standards when they're off the clock.
"He is entitled to his opinion but you're supposed to hold yourself to a higher standard. We should not show any kind of bias," Tinitigan said.
This summer in Philadelphia, the city's police force placed 72 cops on leave, suspended four and fired 13 as a result of an investigation into social media posts that denigrated various minorities, including Muslims.
Sues said people have the right to express their opinions, even if it is hateful, but "the people that we choose as public servants and elected officials need to be held to a higher standard."
"People who publicly express hate for entire ethnicities or religions should be deemed unqualified to serve the public in law enforcement or as elected representatives governing the education of our youth," the CAIR-NJ leader said. "The people of New Jersey deserve better."
According to Tinitigan, since he joined the force in 2011 and became the chief in 2012, the department has had at least 14 training sessions dealing with ethics, diversity, social media and the state Attorney General's Office Immigrant Trust Directive, which is meant to promote confidence in the police by immigrant communities.
"We constantly train on matters such as this," he said.
Schools Superintendent Sylvia Zircher said individual school board members do not speak on behalf of the school district.
"The South River School District promotes the interests and education of its diverse student body and population, regardless of religion, race, gender, orientation, or any other distinguishing characteristic," Zircher said in response to questions from New Jersey 101.5.
Mayor John Krenzel, who is listed as a "friend" of Neilsen on Facebook, did not respond to requests for comment by Tuesday evening.
South River is a borough of 16,300 residents with a diverse profile. About 82% of residents are white and about 6% are black. Nearly 1 out of 4 residents are Hispanic. More than 5,100 residents are immigrants, with most hailing from Portugal, Mexico and Brazil. More than 44% speak a language other than English at home, according to the most recent American Community Survey estimates.
Neilsen is among several public officials in New Jersey found this year to have posted anti-Islam messages on social media.
In Toms River, school board member Daniel Leonard faced calls for his resignation this summer over Facebook posts that included calling a Muslim member of Congress a terrorist and supporting the death of another Muslim congresswoman.
Last week, the Sussex County Community College Board of Trustees censured its vice president, who is also the chairman of the county Republican committee, for social media posts that included a call to "eradicate Islam from every town, city, county and state in our homeland."
The next meeting of the South River Board of Education is 7 p.m. Sept. 23 at the high school.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.