MAY 26, 2022: Acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens, II, joins a grieving nation in expressing his deepest sympathies to the families of the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Just ten days ago we were attempting to comprehend the senseless and racially motivated assassination of ten innocent souls in Buffalo, New York, almost immediately followed by the killing of a devout parishioner at a church in Laguna Woods, California. In the wake of our sorrow and outrage, we were revisited with yet another unthinkable deadly attack on 19 young school children and two of their teachers. Scores of others were also injured. This must stop.
As usual, there is the reflexive talk about the constitutional rights of gun owners in America. But those rights cannot go unfettered. Children have a right to be safe in a schoolhouse. Parents ought not worry that when they drop a child off at school, they will later be asked to provide DNA to identify their child’s body. We can, should, and must do better. In the days and weeks ahead, there will be many calls for change. Until such common-sense efforts succeed, however, a lot will be required from each of us.
As the chief law enforcement agency in Essex County, we urge the public to not grow numb to these atrocities. Rather, we would ask that you redouble efforts to spot potential problems. Specifically, we want parents, students, teachers, and others who are in contact with someone who seems to display a propensity for violence or suffering mental anxiety to reach out to authorities. The shooters in two of the last three incidents allegedly posted photos and comments on social media that should have been red flags. Sadly, it appears, no one took their threats and comments seriously. There is substantial evidence that when individuals threaten murder/suicide they often carry out those threats. Also, every community must acknowledge the possibility for this type of domestic terror by developing preparedness plans. Here in Essex County, the Essex County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to offer “Active Shooter Training” to schools and the Interfaith Community to ensure they are mindful that “fortune often favors the prepared”. Every organization is encouraged either to take advantage of this offer or come up with their own plan.
There is certain to be a national dialogue over how we can make our communities safer. We look forward to being a part of that discussion. While there is no indication of an immediate threat, gun violence poses an ever-present danger to the community at large, including those in law enforcement who run toward the violence. We need to work as a community to solve the issues raised by the proliferation of guns and the scourge of mental illness.
Theodore N. Stephens II
Acting Essex County Prosecutor
* * * * * * * *
AUGUST, 2021: ESSEX COUNTY PROSECUTORS OFFICE EMPLOYEES HAVE RETURNED TO FULL TIME / IN PERSON WORK:
Welcome back ECPO! Although the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office never ceased operations during the pandemic, as of August 2021 all units are up and running, in-person, at full capacity. All the employees who worked from home have returned to the office. Most are vaccinated. Those who are not are being tested weekly with the results reported to the County. We are following the local, state, and federal guidelines recommended to keep both staff and the public we serve safe. That includes social distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands frequently and working cooperatively with the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Essex County Assignment Judge, defense lawyers and others to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Unlike other businesses and even some government agencies, we were never shutdown. Throughout this period both the civilian and sworn law enforcement employees of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office continued working. Some worked from home. Others, such as detectives, are engaged in work that often cannot be done at home. Serious crimes such as homicides, shootings, sexual assaults, child abuse, domestic violence, and others were actively investigated even in the face of the March 2020 shutdown. Even as employees fell sick, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office has worked diligently to maintain its important work of investigating and prosecuting crimes while also protecting its employees and the public from COVID-19.
In the early months of the pandemic, we worked to release inmates who faced health issues that would make them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. We also worked to reduce the number of detainees awaiting trial by either not seeking detention or releasing those in custody when appropriate. On March 22, 2020, the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, the New Jersey Attorney General, the County Prosecutors Association, the Office of the Public Defender, and the American Civil Liberties Union signed an amended consent order to release certain inmates in the county jails due to COVID unless objected to by the County Prosecutor. After analyzing the list of 87 inmates in the Essex County Jail, we consented to the release of 47 inmates. We objected to the remaining 40 inmates being released. As always, we assessed the appropriateness of such release requests on a case-by-case basis. The Court, after reviewing our objections, released 16 of the 40 over our objection. We also reviewed cases involving state prisoners. Consistent with the Governor’s Executive Order 124, from April 10, 2020 to April 26, 2020 we did not oppose the release of 221 state prison inmates who had cases in Essex County.
In the 18-month period from March 1, 2020 to Aug. 31, 2021, the ECPO opened 15,501 new cases involving 17,517 defendants. During that same period 12,879 cases were resolved. Guilty pleas were reached in 2,404 cases, the rest were resolved by dismissal, downgrade or were no billed. The pandemic created a backlog but the ECPO continued to move cases at a significant rate during the pandemic.
Perhaps more importantly, many procedures and policies that were adopted during the early days of the pandemic to reduce the jail population and the number of people who need to come to court are still in place. For instance, even though the courts have reopened to the public, many proceedings continue to occur virtually. While we are back physically, make no mistake, we recognize we are in a fluid situation. When needed we will adjust our policies and procedures, based on science, to ensure the wellbeing of all.
As we look back at the last 18 months, we are grateful for the quiet unsung heroes who continued to show up and do their jobs with vigor and commitment. From the cleaning people, to support staff, to the victim/witness advocates, to the lawyers and detectives, your efforts have not gone unnoticed. As we move forward, we recognize that this new normal comes with understandable fear, anxiety, and even grief as we consider the losses we have experienced. Let me reassure the employees of ECPO and the public that we remain committed to your health, safety, and wellbeing as well as the pursuit of justice.
The pandemic has caused us to all lose a lot. Most notably, we have lost family and friends who transitioned during the past year and a half. In the vast majority of those cases, we were unable to memorialize their lives as was done previously. In honor of those we have lost and in consideration of those young people who cannot be vaccinated as well as those with underlying health conditions, this is a time to show grace and consideration to those around us.
Together, we can move ahead with a renewed sense of purpose.
Theodore N. Stephens II
Acting Essex County Prosecutor
* * * * * * * *