A month after an employee called police on black couple Magalie and Barry Lawrence at a state office in Concord, activists are criticizing how the Department of Environmental Services and the Department of Health and Human Services have handled the incident and are calling on agencies to change their practices to involve law enforcement.
A group of 19 local activists and residents on Tuesday signed a letter sent to DES Commissioner Robert R. Scott and DHHS Commissioner Lori Shibinette, asking the commissioners to come up with a plan with new or revised policies that specify when police must be called.
“Unless or until this happens, we have a strong concern that state offices and facilities are unsafe for people of color,” the letter said.
Concord for Change lead organizer Lidia Aloyo Yen and Black Lives Matter Seacoast co-founder Clifton West were among those who signed the letter.
Activists have criticized the agencies for giving workers in contact with the public the discretion to call the police. “Such a policy enables and ensures that race will not be controlled as a reason for employees to call the police on members of the public,” the letter states.
Commissioner Robert Scott said the department has received the letter and is reviewing its policies in light of the Lawrences’ experience. “They have an important perspective that we want to make sure we incorporate,” Scott said.
The review will include policies on calling the police and possibly staff training. “It’s an important issue for us,” Scott said. “I don’t want to diminish this in any way, but we are always looking for ways to improve our procedures.”
In a joint statement from the two agencies, DHHS spokesperson Jake Leon and DES spokesperson Jim Martin said they regretted the Lawrences’ experience at the Hazen Drive office and took the matter seriously. serious. They also said the attorney general’s office had been asked to look into the matter.
Asked about the letter by the Concord Monitor, Magalie Lawrence said she had no further comment.
The police are callingMaggie and Barry Lawrence visited a state office building on Hazen Drive in Concord on February 22 to resolve an error in Maggie’s COVID-19 vaccination records.
While there, the Lawrences became frustrated with Department of Health social services workers and raised their voices. A receptionist from the Department of Environmental Services, which shares offices with the Department of Health and Human Services, called the police.
A state trooper arrived and spoke to the couple, but left after a third DHHS employee stepped in and helped the couple resolve the initial issue. They have not been arrested.
Barry and Magalie Lawrence said they had never posed a threat to any state employees – and the choice to call the police about them was racist.
“Throughout the Lawrences’ interaction with your employees, your staff operated on the basis of offensive and dangerous racial stereotypes, assuming or perceiving that the Lawrences were more threatening or dangerous than anyone else who raises their voice simply because the color of their skin,” the letter read.
The letter also said agency executives failed to adequately address the Lawrences’ concerns after the fact.
On February 22, Magalie Lawrence wrote to Scott, saying the receptionist shouldn’t have called law enforcement to resolve the situation. “Anyone who calls the police on a person of color for a trivial matter is making a conscious decision to see them dead,” Lawrence wrote.
The commissioner replied in an email which read: ‘Thank you for bringing this to my attention. We will use this feedback to hopefully improve our services,” according to a screenshot provided to Concord Monitor.
Scott said he quickly sent the email to let Lawrence know he was looking into his complaint. “It wasn’t meant to be the full answer,” he said.
How Agencies Handle Bias ComplaintsIn the Department of Environmental Services, complaints about violations of the agency’s non-discrimination policy, publicly posted in buildings like Hazen Drive, are directed to the agency’s legal unit. The phone number listed on the notices rings at Administrator Pam Monroe’s office.
Monroe said the agency hasn’t received any complaints of policy violations in the past two years, longer than she has held the position. If she received a complaint, she would start by consulting with the New Hampshire Department of Justice and the DES human resources administrator. She would also contact the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office for Civil Rights if the complaint involved a violation of Title VI, which prohibits discrimination by offices that receive federal funds.
Monroe said she informed the New Hampshire Department of Justice of the Lawrences’ concerns. “We are certainly looking at our practices here,” she said.
At the Department of Health and Human Services, complaints of discrimination against staff go through the DHHS Ombudsman’s Office.
Under the law of the state that established the office, mediators can provide meditation or “other means of informally resolving complaints.” Since October 2020, there have been 1,764 complaints against staff, including 2 involving allegations of bias due to race or ethnicity, according to Leon.
Diversity trainingSome state agencies conduct their own diversity training. DHHS employees undergo diversity and cultural competency training, which aims to help staff identify the impact of cultural attitudes on their day-to-day interactions. To create cultural competency in an organization, the manual lists suggestions such as “understanding how each of our backgrounds affects our responses to others” and “actively eliminating bias in practices and policies.”
All executive branch employees are trained in the state policy “Respect and Civility in the Workplace” by the Department of Administrative Services. The training slides tell workers that “words and actions with good intentions can always have a negative impact” and that they should speak out against unfair or discriminatory treatment of their colleagues.
Starting in April, an optional online course titled “Diversity and Inclusion: From Awareness to Action” will be available for government employees. Course objectives include understanding workplace policies that do not promote diversity and inclusion and teaching students “to develop a strategy to improve your anti-racism policies, practices, and procedures.”
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