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Citing a surge in complaints, NH expands civil rights unit

Attorney General John Formella at a podium during a press conference
Todd Bookman/NHPR
New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella at a January 2023 press conference announcing civil rights enforcement actions against NSC-131, a white supremacist group.

This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.

Facing a surge in received complaints since it launched in 2017, New Hampshire’s Civil Rights Unit is expanding its staff, Attorney General John Formella announced Thursday.

Formella said the Department of Justice would be adding a law enforcement investigator, an additional attorney, and a legal support staff person to the team.

The move comes as the number of civil rights complaints filed with the office has risen from 40 per year in its first year to 186, a 465% increase, according to the Department of Justice.

“My hope is that with these additional resources, we send a strong message that hate has no place in New Hampshire and that we will do everything in our power to investigate, punish, and deter hate crimes and civil rights violations,” Formella said in a statement.

Created by Gov. Chris Sununu and then-Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, the civil rights unit investigates potential violations of the federal Civil Rights Act, as well as state anti-discrimination laws. It can bring cases forward for criminal prosecution and make referrals to the Commission for Human Rights. The unit also works to train law enforcement, according to the Department of Justice.

Formella attributed the rise in complaints to “the increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the state, increasingly divisive rhetoric in politics and media, and recent increased tension and geopolitics conflict worldwide.”

Investigating and prosecuting those crimes is important, Formella argued.

“When a hate crime occurs, it sends a message to that person and to their community that they should feel unsafe and unwelcome,” Formella said. “Hate crimes encourage people to withdraw from the community out of fear.”

Formella said the new resources would allow the department to respond more quickly to incidents in New Hampshire municipalities, and to support the local law enforcement agencies investigating those incidents. Previously, the unit has had just one full-time attorney, and the department has used other attorneys on a temporary basis on certain cases.

The unit has responded to a number of public incidents in recent years, including the appearance of swastikas.

Last February, the Nazi symbols appeared on businesses in Franklin as well as a synagogue in Portsmouth. Two weeks ago, they appeared at the Belknap County Democratic Committee building in Laconia.

The civil rights unit often takes an active role.

Earlier this month, the department announced that it had filed a civil complaint against David Van Tassell, 61, of Londonderry, who the department alleges left a hateful and threatening note on a person’s truck targeting their Puerto Rican heritage.

The unit has also helped with the investigation of a vandalism incident by pro-Palestinian protesters at the Merrimack defense company Elbit Systems, an Israeli-based business, earlier this month.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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