A bill in the New Hampshire Senate would require conservation officers to be trained in civil rights enforcement, anti-discrimination and de-escalation methods.
Concord Democratic Sen. Becky Whitley says right now, reports of racism or other discrimination at state parks and other recreation areas are referred to local police. The state, she says, does little to track how often they occur.
"Incidents like this happen all over the state but, of course, many times go unreported due to fear and a long-standing distrust,” Whitley told NHPR.
State Rep. Maria Perez, a Democrat from Milford who emigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador more than 30 years ago, told the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday that she felt unsafe after seeing that vandalism in a place she enjoys walking.
“Having the parks and recreation and police officers and everyone taking this training is going to help us to unify our communities and feel they’re welcoming for everyone,” Perez said.
Perez added that she’s also been told while walking her dog in her own neighborhood that she should leave the community because she’s Hispanic.
Asma Elhuni, an Upper Valley resident and activist, said she and other friends who are Muslim immigrants have had similar experiences while wearing hijabs during walks and exercise – including unprompted questions from local police that made them feel unwelcome. Elhuni said the incidents went unreported due to fear of retaliation.
“I excercise every day. I do not go to my parks…because one, I look so different, I am a Muslim in hijab, and I do stick out. But two, I worry for my safety,” she said during virtual committee testimony.
Elhuni compared civil rights training for outdoor conservation officers to the idea of a restaurant displaying a sign that says “immigrants are welcome here.”
“This bill will … better help us feel safer to go to places where we might not otherwise go,” she said. “This bill is kind of a way to let us know that, hey, this is an inclusive community and we do welcome everyone.”
After the racist vandalism at Audubon, some state park and White Mountain National Forest officials told NHPR they hadn’t heard of similar incidents on their public lands. Audubon officials said other land trusts they contacted hadn’t experienced anything similar either.
Whitley, the bill’s prime sponsor, said it’s not clear if that reflects the reality of unreported incidents. She hopes this bill will normalize more reporting and tracking of these issues, since victims may feel safer asking for help from a park ranger than a police officer.
The proposal would codify that state conservation officers receive ethics, diversity and de-escalation training, and enforce anti-discrimination policies.
The changes were recommended by Gov. Chris Sununu’s police accountability commission last year. An executive order stemming from that commission will apply the new rules to conservation officers, but Whitley said she feels it’s important to enshrine the change in state statute.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee has not yet made its recommendation to the full Senate on the bill, but did not express major concerns with it at Tuesday’s hearing.