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Utility Company Says Upstate New Yorkers Are Calling 911 on Company’s Black Workers for “Suspicious Activity’

For National Grid’s Black employees, trouble is always just around the corner — even when they haven’t done anything wrong.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Oct. 14, the utility company, which serves natural gas and electricity customers in the Northeast, revealed that individuals in their upstate New York service area are repeatedly calling 911 to report “suspicious activity” by Black workers who are simply carrying out their tasks.

They acknowledged that these calls are pervasive and specifically directed at non-white employees.

An African American man wearing a hard hat and safety vest, standing in front of a bucket truck or cherry picker, carrying cables on his shoulder. He is a construction worker, utility worker or engineer. Photo credit: Getty

“National Grid has been made aware of an increase in members of the public calling 911 to report everyday work performed by company employees as suspicious activity,” the company said Wednesday. “The reports are occurring in parts of the company’s upstate New York service area and appear to be targeting National Grid employees of color.”

According to the company, in every occurrence, employees were always driving a company-identified vehicle, wearing company-marked clothing and personal protective equipment, and holding a company-issued photo ID. Every employee and contractor working for the company is required to carry a photo ID, said Michael A. West Jr., National Grid’s senior vice president of corporate affairs.

West emphasized the company’s dedication to taking care of their workforce. “We take employee safety very seriously,” he said. “Our employees work in the field every day maintaining the reliability of an energy system that is even more important than ever during this pandemic.”

He acknowledged the concerning nature of the information, and indicated that the calls had negatively impacted the execution of their jobs.

“These reports highlighting the targeting of African American and other ethnically diverse employees are very troubling, and the disconcerting nature of these 911 calls are unnecessarily disruptive to our work and the work being performed by local law enforcement,” he added.

West said the company had faced isolated instances of such calls but the number has increased of late. He would not say how many of the 911 calls had been made nor identify where in upstate New York the calls were coming from.

“We’ve seen an uptick recently,” he said. “I think maybe this is just a heightened time for people for whatever reason. It’s difficult to speak to causation or what the rationale might be.”

While he said police response to calls determined there was “no issue here,” he noted the confrontations have prompted “some employee concerns.”

“We don’t want this to become a bigger trend,” he said.

What might help combat the problem is a new bill that was introduced two years ago in New York and has been revived due to the recent series of high-profile racist incidents like Amy Cooper’s call placed to police in May. New York Assemblyman Felix Ortiz’s bill, A3566, would make it a hate crime to falsely report a 911 call based on prejudice. If passed, this law would make the phone calls illegal.

Amy Cooper, a white woman, was walking her dog in Central Park when she encountered a Black man, Christian Cooper, who had asked her to put a leash on her dog. Cooper called 911 to file a report against the man, claiming he was threatening her, although his video footage of the encounter clearly shows he was being calm and polite.

“How many more incidents like the one we witnessed this past weekend where someone calls the police on a Black man to falsely claim he was committing a crime and threatening them before we take action,” said Ortiz in a press release. “These incidents are not only racist and shameful but serious and dangerous to all involved. Too often, these incidents end in tragedy and we must take action to stop them for happening,” he said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also stated that he wants to sign the bill into law as part of a larger legislative effort to combat systematic racism and police brutality. “The bottom line is: We should be using better judgment. Racism gets created, and I think that by making false reporting because of gender or region is completely unacceptable and intolerable,” Cuomo said.

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