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Local Leaders of Color Encouraged by AG Group on Racial Justice

WORCESTER - Thirteen hours after Donald J. Trump was elected president, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura T. Healey sent a defiant email to her supporters.

"We will work to reject in the most direct ways, the racism, sexism and xenophobia we witnessed during the campaign," she wrote, vowing to "forcefully oppose" any efforts to "roll back the progress" of the last eight years.

 

The email and a telephone hotline to report bias-motivated threats established soon thereafter are part of an aggressive public strategy by the liberal Democrat to use her office to support people of color. And as Ms. Healey adds her voice to the chorus of public officials questioning Mr. Trump, at her ear will be several local people of color selected to advise her on matters of race.

A week before the election, Ms. Healey created the AG Advisory Council on Racial Justice and Equity, a 33-member board that will advise her on "issues affecting racial and ethnic minority residents and how the AG's office can work to improve their lives."

Five of the members live in or around Worcester - Patricia Yancey, president of the Worcester chapter of the NAACP; Elder Esau Vance, pastor of Mount Olive Pentecostal Church; Joyce McNickles, of McNickles and Associates; the Rev. Clyde D. Talley, senior president of Belmont AME Zion Church; and Raymond D. Austin, senior pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church.

Members who responded to requests for comment said they appreciate their voices being heard and hope Ms. Healey will pursue reforms, particularly with respect to policing and criminal justice.

"I think it could be great for Worcester," Ms. Yancey said. Not only is it encouraging to have the ear of the state's top prosecutor, she said, but equally significant is the chance for social justice leaders in Worcester to hear what leaders in other cities are doing.

"I think, with race relations and social justice, Worcester maybe does not have the length and depth of work, and unity of work, that some of these other communities have," she said.

Asked for her thoughts on Worcester from a racial justice perspective, Ms. Healey said she doesn't think it has "any more or less problems or issues" than any other city in the state.

 

"I think we as a society have an obligation to look at the reality - and the facts acknowledge - that there are disparities that exist," she said.

Ms. Healey highlighted "shocking" disparities in housing, economics and other categories in a recent lecture at Greenfield Community College.

"The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston recently reported that for every dollar that a white household has in liquid assets, black families have two pennies," Ms. Healey said, according to a transcript provided by staff.

Ms. Healey also highlighted a Pew Research Center figure showing that the average black household has a net worth of $11,000 compared to $142,000 for whites.

Ms. Healey is also reaching out to immigrants. Her Advisory Council on New Americans, established in September, aims to inform her on "issues affecting immigrant and minority residents" and how the AG can improve their lives.

"It's nice that people know that if they are the victim of hate crimes, they have somewhere to go," said Khalid Sadozai, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester and one of several council members with Worcester ties.

Civil rights groups across the country have reported an uptick in hate speech since Mr. Trump was elected. The AG's office this week said its racial bias hotline has already received 400 calls, including calls for racist graffiti at Attleboro High School and concern about Ku Klux Klan newsletters being distributed in Milford neighborhoods.

 

The AG's office said its attorneys are following up on reports from the hotline and working with local police to take legal action "wherever possible."

Ms. Yancey said the NAACP received reports of at least two disturbances caused by Trump supporters in Worcester; a police spokesperson said the department did not appear to have reports regarding any such incidents on file.

As Ms. Healey moves forward with her initiative, it's likely she will need to do so with some tact. For, at the same time she's working with police to prosecute crimes, including hate crimes, she's meeting with communities of color that often accuse police of profiling and brutality.

"It's going to require some political sophistication," Rahsaan D. Hall, director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Program and a former prosecutor, observed.

"If the work requires her to hold those in law enforcement accountable, my hope is that's what she will do," said Mr. Hall, who has known Ms. Healey since the two graduated from Northeastern University School of Law in 1998.

Mr. Hall said while it's great to have people sitting around a table talking about problems, the council's true measure of success will be action.

"What I'd like to see happen is some policy recommendations coming out from the Attorney General or some letters and/or directives encouraging police departments to adopt certain practices," he said.

 

Ms. McNickles, a consultant on social justice from Sutton, said police transparency was on the mind of many attendees at the first advisory council meeting. Rather than rely on anecdotes of disparate treatment, Ms. McNickles said communities of color deserve to see statistics on police stops and interactions to see to what extent they are treated differently and where.

 

Boston police have made headlines in recent years regarding concerns of racial profiling, but that's only because the department released and studied its own data after prodding from the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I haven't seen this data released in Worcester - that would go a long way toward promoting police-community relations," Ms. McNickles said.

Worcester Chief Steven M. Sargent was unavailable for an interview Tuesday or Wednesday, but did address several questions about data collection via email.

Chief Sargent said the department's "field interview cards" are not entered into its server and therefore cannot be tracked electronically.

"The database can track various categories of crime, arrests, citations and incidents," Chief Sargent wrote, and the department in the past has released data on citations and arrests to various organizations, including the Department of Justice.

"Transparency is very important to our department, and if we can accurately track the data requested, then we would release it," Chief Sargent wrote.

 

The chief said the department periodically reviews its data and in the past has not found any patterns of concern.

"Our department is dedicated to the concept of community policing and engaging all members of the public from various socioeconomic, religious, racial and cultural backgrounds," he said.

In an interview, Ms. Healey said she was not aware whether her office has ever asked Worcester police for data concerning its interactions with racial minorities.

Her office is prosecuting a white former city officer for allegedly beating a black prisoner in a cell in 2014. The incident, as well as local protests that occurred as part of the national Black Lives Matter movement, preceded last summer's race dialogues.

The Police Department has also faced numerous lawsuits alleging civil rights violations in recent years. It has settled most of the cases, with city lawyers calling the settlements business decisions and police at times criticizing the attorney who has brought the bulk of the actions.

Ms. Healey stressed that policing is far from the only thing she's looking to review; she also plans to get at disparities in lending and housing and the sort of economic disparities she alluded to in her recent lecture.

But council members in Worcester agreed that policing and criminal justice are at the top of the list of the things leaders of color are interested in addressing.

 

'Fairness over time will create a greater level of confidence and trust," said Elder Vance. He said it has pained him to watch recent killings of black men by police as well as the rising number of ambush-style shootings of police officers doing their jobs.

"That's devastating, and to me, what that does is just further put the police on edge," he said.

Elder Vance, part of the Worcester Clergy-Police Community Partnership, said he believes the city and Police Department are sincere in their efforts to improve racial disparities.

While several leaders of color, including Elder Vance and Ms. Yancey, expressed concern in 2015 about lack of outreach from the city's former police chief, Gary J. Gemme, both are optimistic about Chief Sargent.

"I'm encouraged from jump street with him," said Elder Vance. "He and I have direct communication."

Ms. Yancey said Chief Sargent has attended an NAACP meeting and seems to be "on the same page about serving and protecting all communities.

"He's out there in the community meeting with everybody," she said.

 

Elder Vance noted, though, that while words and meetings are important, many in communities of color are likely to be skeptical until they see action.

"Let's face it. The belief is that nothing is going to be done," he said. "But this (council) might change that belief, especially if people see action being taken."

 

 

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