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Head of Civil Rights Unit Says N.H. is Working to Address Racial Inequities

Ali Oshinskie for NHPR

Protests in cities across the U.S. and in New Hampshire are turning the focus to the often fraught relationship between law enforcement and communities of color.

Sean Locke is director of the state's Civil Rights Unit in the Attorney General's Office, where he works on some of these issues.  

(Below is a lightly edited transcript of this interview.)

Sean Locke, thank you for speaking with me.

Thank you.

So NHPR has done some reporting on racial inequities. We did some extensive reporting four years ago and we found that nationally blacks are three and a half times more likely to be in jail than whites. In New Hampshire, blacks are five times more likely to be in jail. And in Hillsborough County, the most populous and diverse county in the state, they're nearly six times more likely to be in jail than whites. That's what we found four years ago. I wanted to ask you, what is the state done or is the state doing now to address this inequity?

So since then, the state, I think, has undertaken several steps in this process to help address some of the racial inequities and incarceration rates. One of the first elements of this, this is kind of a significant piece of the conversation around bail reform that has taken place in the state of New Hampshire. And it's obviously part of a larger ongoing conversation between the legislature and elected officials and law enforcement about kind of the impact and the effects of bail reform. But that is one that was kind of one of the primary, one of the goals and kind of impetuses for bail reform is to address some of the racial and economic disparities in incarceration rates in the state, especially pretrial incarceration.

And is that enough or is there more that needs to be done?

The response there, it's looking at this as a step by step basis. And certainly this is a first step in the process and in kind of in the direction of addressing some of the racial disparities that exist. And as it kind of takes effect and data can be gathered around it, we can then the legislature can choose to look at what next steps need to be taken in that realm.

So is that what you're saying, that the legislature has to take the next step?

Not in all circumstances. I think that turns to the second kind of area that has been that has been undertaken to address some of the racial disparities and some of the disparities kind of in law enforcement itself, and that's - New Hampshire state police, early last year, so 2019, issued a new policy on fair and impartial policing. And the purpose behind that policy is to prevent and prohibit biased policing and other discriminatory practices in any law enforcement related activity involving a member of the Division of State Police. Since the adoption, and that's a policy that was kind of widely celebrated when it was adopted, and since its adoption, the Governor's Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion has highlighted it as a basis to kind of expand those principles in these practices to training for law enforcement officers across the state. And so that's something that's that is kind of that was a recommendation made by that council is currently under review and exploration by by the governor's office, as well as are made to the governor's office for their review and exploration of the next steps to take with that.

I see. And in back in December, there was one protocol that was issued by the Attorney General's office that required a request that met each police department designate, at least one staff member to serve as the department's civil rights designee, who would coordinate with the department's response to alleged bias or hate motivated crimes and incidents. I wanted to ask you, how's this been working?

This has been working pretty well, I mean, even before these protocols were issued, in terms of identifying and responding to hate crimes, Civil Rights Act violations or other kind of bias motivated incidents, law enforcement has often been kind of historically, has been one of our stronger partners in identifying those cases. They are we'll make referrals to this office. Police department since then have not hesitated to make referrals, even where they may suspect the possibility of racial motivation, even if it ultimately doesn't bear out that that was the source of the conduct. They've been making referrals to this office to coordinate with this office, to respond to potential hate crimes, potential Civil Rights Act violations, and keeping this office appraised of other incidents that may occur that don't rise to the level of a hate crime or civil rights act violation.

Sean, I wanted to ask you about Ronald Saint Preux, a black man who was arrested by two state troopers last week. In a video he shot on his phone, the two troopers broke through his window and dragged him from the car. The AG's Office says it's conducting a review. What does that actually mean? How how is that different from an official investigation?

The review - it entails, in reviewing the materials, reviewing the records that have been produced in this matter, the office will then take any and all appropriate actions after after it completes its review. You know, whatever is warranted by the facts and circumstances under the case, and this could include the possibility of a Civil Rights Act enforcement action, which is a civil remedy, or it could include additional actions, as again deemed appropriate by the facts and circumstances of the case.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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