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Hostile Environment For Black Workers Probed In Virginia Beach Shooting Investigation

Police tape frames a sign at one of the entrances to the municipal government complex where a dozen people were shot to death earlier this year in Virginia Beach, Va.
Jonathan Drake
Police tape frames a sign at one of the entrances to the municipal government complex where a dozen people were shot to death earlier this year in Virginia Beach, Va.

Investigators are looking into whether a hostile work environment existed – particularly for African American employees – at the City of Virginia Beach leading up to a deadly mass shooting on city property earlier this year.

They also want to know whether such an environment might have contributed to the shooting that killed a dozen victims at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center on May 31, according to a report presented to city council members on Tuesday night. The meeting was held at the same complex of buildings where the shooting took place.

The shooter, a public utilities engineer, was African American, and both black and white colleagues were among his victims.

Arnette Heintze, CEO of the security risk management firm Hillard Heintze, told council members that reports of a hostile work environment are a key focus of his firm's independent investigation into the shooting.

"These issues included allegations that African American employees were being treated differently; that they were often more subject to discipline than their counterparts, that they were less likely to be promoted than their counterparts," Heintze said. "That these employees felt that they could not share their concerns with management for fear of retaliation."

Investigators also heard general reports of a "challenging and difficult work environment" created by managers at the city, Heintze said.

Heintze's Chicago-based firm has hosted listening sessions and conducted scores of interviews with employees, family members, survivors, and members of the public. A workplace satisfaction survey of Virginia Beach city employees is also underway.

So far a separate, official police investigation is yielding few details about what might have motivated the May 31 shooter, who had just resigned from his position with the city on the day he took the lives of 11 coworkers and one contractor, and injured four others.

"We have already dedicated thousands of investigative hours in pursuit of a conclusion, and we have thousands of investigative hours still remaining before we conclude this investigation," Virginia Beach Deputy Police Chief Patrick Gallagher told city council members.

Gallagher said police have found no social media accounts, no manifesto, and no personal emails or documents that could shed light on a possible motive. Police also have looked at the shooter's financial, medical and mental health history and found no concerns, he said.

The shooter's employment record showed no history of "threatening encounters" between the him and his colleagues, Gallagher said.

"He was actually described by many that we interviewed as 'quiet,' 'polite,' 'nice guy,' and 'a good listener,'" he said.

Gallagher said the shooter killed both people he knew and people he did not know, and noted that his victims were racially diverse and included both men and women.

"We are 116 days into this investigation," he said. "Each and every one of those days we have asked the question, 'Why? Why did this suspect do what he did?' We are still looking to determine a motive."

Virginia Beach police are working with FBI behavioral analysis experts to assist with the search for a possible motive. Gallagher said he does not expect police to complete their report for another six to nine months.

Several family members of victims attended, including Denise Smallwood, whose twin brother Joshua Hardy, an engineering technician, was among those killed. Smallwood, who is African American, said "of course" there was a hostile environment for black employees at the city. She said her brother had described a "good old boy system" at the city soon after he was hired.

"Let's not forget, [hostile environments] are created by people in charge, people in high positions, and it trickles down," Smallwood said. "It's been going on for years, and it took this to happen for them to wake up and do something about it."

After the meeting, Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer declined to comment while the investigations are underway.

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Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.