On how to lie to the City Council
The Brian K. Vaughn comic book Saga, as I’m sure many of my readers are aware, is a big zany space opera and it’s a lot of fun. One of my favorite characters is a cat named Lying Cat with the magic power to detect when people are lying and say “lying” in normal human English. It’s a power which proves useful time and again to the bounty hunter type character to whom Lying Cat is something of a sidekick.
Lying Cat would prove quite useful around these parts, gotta say. There’s been quite a bit of lying going on lately, especially as it relates to the Police Department’s request for a drone. All the lying has created a sort of fog around the issue that makes it very hard to understand what’s going on, and it certainly feels like it’s on purpose. The cops, the city manager and the city’s legal team are pumping dry ice like it’s a KISS concert and the majority of the City Council appears content to be led through the mists with closed eyes and open hearts. They don’t know what the fog obscures and they don’t want to know. If it’s there, they’ll say, it’s there for good reason. And it feels safe, you know, being led by the hand through something. It’s comfy.
In that spirit of blind acquiescence, it seems the cops are going to get their drone and a policy for use that allows for quite a bit of wiggle room and creativity. A lot of “exigent circumstances” for deploying drones, as we’ll get into, including to my mind the most nightmarish: searching for homeless encampments using infrared heat mapping technology. This week, the Standing Committee on Public Safety voted 3–0 in favor of supporting the purchase and it will go to the full City Council shortly, maybe next week, where the vote will likely be something like 8–3 in favor. Barring some sort of divine intervention, the cops will be adding this surveillance tool to a growing arsenal.
While there are myriad issues with the cop’s proposal, I’m going to focus as I have been on use as it relates to the city’s unhoused population. I sort of feel like I’m beating my head against the wall on this one, but I’m going to keep at it because I have learned a hell of a lot about the real power dynamics between the Police Department and City Hall zooming way in on this. If I do my job well enough with this post, I think you will too.
It is also specific enough a pressure point that we could actually rack a rare ‘W.’ Though the chances are admittedly slim, they’re there. While we can’t stop the police from buying a drone, we may be able to make sure they don’t use it in this one particularly evil way.
So a quick refresher, though my ride-or-dies will have read some version of this before (and maybe two or three times): Using a drone to find homeless encampments is not some paranoid thought pulled from a speculative ether. It is not a ‘what if.’ In Police Chief Steven Sargent’s first report to the City Council on April 5, he provided an array of potential uses, but three primary uses: search and rescue, accident mapping, de-escalation. For what it’s worth, Sargent lists “search and rescue” as Use “A,” suggesting a certain enthusiasm for the idea.
The description of search and rescue starts with what you might expect: looking for missing persons, especially children and the elderly. Easy to see how a drone with heat mapping would be useful in that situation, for sure. But then, without any sort of transition statement to denote the difference between the two situations, Sargent writes that a drone would be “of assistance to the City’s Quality of Life Team when searching for homeless encampments.”
“All variations of this mission have been flown numerous times nationwide with successful results,” he writes, concluding the summary of what he believes constitutes “search and rescue” missions.
The obvious difference here, which Sargent did not and subsequently has not acknowledged, is whether the person would benefit from being found. You simply cannot extend the logic of a lost child in the woods to someone living there because they see no better alternative. These camps exist because our society has failed to provide a more desirable alternative. They are not missing from home, they are home. There is no rescue to be performed, by even the most generous definition. Telling someone they can’t live where they are living is not a rescue.
This is, by the way, the function of the Quality of Life Team. And it’s important to understand that. The cops and the city manager will talk often about how the Quality of Life Team helps the unhoused “find services” and while that’s true enough the services are a small carrot dangled in front of a very large stick. The Quality of Life Team goes into homeless camps offering an array of services but they also make it clear that they’re going to come back in a week or two and demolish the camp. The services are at the end of the day an ultimatum, and not a great one. For more on this I’d suggest going back and reading a post of mine about an especially large camp eviction in October.
It’s a policy failure on all levels of government that people wind up living in tents in the richest society the world has ever seen. This isn’t a problem unique to Worcester and Worcester can’t on its own build the type of supportive housing infrastructure that’s necessary to solve it. But we could be a little more fuckin’ understanding about the whole thing. We don’t have to tear down camps. In fact there are many benefits to leaving camps where they are. But we do tear them down. That is a policy choice we have made. Camp goes down. New camp pops up somewhere else in the city. Camp goes down. New camp. This is a cruel process and a drone would only make the cruelty more efficient.
So since Sargent’s proposal came out in April, many people have spoken up with various iterations of ‘this is going to make things worse for everyone.’ But instead of grappling with these concerns in good faith, the powers that be have just been jamming dry ice into the fog machine, resulting in a tangled web of contradictory statements culminating in comments from Deputy Chief Paul Saucier at the subcommittee meeting Wednesday that had me literally screaming at my computer screen. The Internet has rendered the term ‘gaslighting’ meaningless but Saucier put on a bonafide masterclass that night. In order to understand just how bad it was, we’ll need to take a step back. Here’s a brief chronology of relevant comments made by the powers that be. For more background, my first post on the drone proposal in April.
April 5: The City Council discusses Sargent’s report for the first time. Councilor Etel Haxhiaj said she’s concerned drones will make it harder for outreach workers to build trust.
“This sends quite a chilling message to the unhoused,” she said.
In City Manager Ed Augustus’s response he confirms what anyone who understands the city’s handling of homeless encampments already knew. They’re going to use the drone to find camps, then they’re going to break the camps up.
“I don’t think it would be right to assume we’re using them as a way just to break them up,” he said. “It’s a way to really engage them and get them the help they need.”
April 20: Then, at the first Public Safety Subcommittee meeting, Saucier said, “we’re only trying to help identify encampments when it's freezing cold out, and people can die. That’s the only reason that (use) was mentioned in that proposal… not saying we’re gonna do it, we’re saying that we would offer that assistance if needed.”
May 10: At this City Council meeting, we really jump the shark. Councilor George Russell asked Chief Sargent if his department intended to use drones to locate the unhoused. Sargent said “absolutely not.” Russell asked if he would include language to that effect in the department’s drone policy. Sargent said, “We would certainly put language in there that would protect against that,” in a slow and purposeful cadence which suggested he was thoughtful about the wording.
May 17: Then, at the Council review of the Police Department’s budget—just one week later—we jump the boat that jumped the shark. Councilor Khrystian King said he was concerned about the use. In response, Sargent said, “When it comes to the unhoused, we would be using [a drone] to identify encampments that could be detrimental not only to citizens around but also to the individuals themselves.”
On May 10? “Absolutely not.” On May 17? Absolutely yes. In fact in exactly the way I initially described last month. And in direct contradiction to what I told you a week ago.
June 1: Deputy Chief Paul Saucier took questions at a Standing Committee on Public Safety hearing dedicated to drones. Councilor Sarai Rivera asked Saucier about the unhoused issue, but couched in a rather strange logic of discrimination. The drone would be used to find “anyone missing anywhere,” Rivera said, “it didn’t matter if they were housed or unhoused.” Intentional or not, this is a warped portrait of the proposal.
Saucier responded: “We have no intention of, as I said multiple times, trying to identify unhoused individuals wherever they are.” He dismissed the proposed use as a “sentence in the proposal” that “pretty much got blown out of proportion.” The fact that both Sargent and Augustus had said in previous meetings that the intention was very much to locate camps did not stop Saucier from claiming that the cops have “no intention” of doing so. Who do we believe here? The city manager, the police chief and the written report saying one thing? Or the deputy chief saying the exact opposite?
“There is nothing in there saying we'll be searching for homeless people,” Saucier said a moment later (insert Lying Cat). “If somebody is lost or missing, we’ll use the technology to help find them. It doesn't matter whether or not they're housed or not.”
Ah, Saucier joining Rivera in presenting this as a discrimination issue! All Missing Persons Matter! I wonder where they got this bizarre talking point? Same source, perhaps? A little coordination at play?
Regardless, it’s fuckin’ stupid. The report says very clearly that the drone would be of assistance to the Quality of Life Team, which is the city’s homelessness task force, not its missing person task force. We are not talking about homeless people who happen to be lost, we are talking about people living in the woods. You are not rescuing them. You are evicting them. It is madness that this point warrants articulation.
Toward the end of the meeting, Patch reporter Neal McNamara called in to ask Saucier about Sargent’s assertion on May 10 that the department would include language to protect against using the drone to find homeless encampments.
Quickly and bluntly, he said “no.” Finally, a little honesty!
“And the reason being,” he continued, growing less honest by the second, “is when you create a policy you can't make it so specific.” He posited a novel hypothetical: In the case of a brush fire, cops would use the drone to find people in the woods before the fire department goes in to put the fire out. He called it “probably the only situation that it would be used in reference to any unhoused individuals.”
“Everything has to be spelled out but you can't be so specific that you're handcuffed,” he said.
The professional handcuffer says no handcuffs for me, thank you very much.
Okay, that’s a lot of statements to dump on you at once, but you may have noticed that a lot of the claims being made were very clearly contradictory. I’m no detective, but even I can see these guys don’t have their story straight.
Contradiction #1: On May 17, the chief said that the drone will be used to “identify encampments” and said it quite clearly and concisely, in keeping with language in his initial report. But Saucier on June 1 said “there is nothing in there saying we’ll be searching for homeless people.” Also, obviously, Sargent said on May 10 that the drone wouldn’t be used that way. So that’s Saucier contradicting a claim made by Sargent that was itself contradictory. A two-fer!
Contradiction #2: Saucier said on April 20 that the only situation they’d use a drone to locate a homeless encampment is in the case of extreme cold. This week, he said the only situation they’d use a drone to locate homeless people was in the case of a brush fire. Two distinctly different situations, both the only situation. Does not inspire confidence in the Single Situation Theory.
Contradiction #3: Perhaps the most important. Sargent said on May 10 that they’ll update the policy with language around the unhoused. This week, Saucier said they’ll do no such thing. To put such a restriction in the policy, he said, would simply be too restrictive.
The draft policy he’s talking about—the one now going back to the City Council without a single revision—certainly does a good job of avoiding restrictions. The section on privacy, especially, has an absolutely bonkers proviso. The policy states that people have a right to a “reasonable expectation of privacy” from drone surveillance save for three exceptions: the cops get a warrant, they get the consent of the property owner (and how does that figure for public property?), or the use of the drone use is deemed (by the police deploying it, mind you) to be an “exigent circumstance.” Per the policy, exigent circumstances include “search and rescue missions, tactical missions, crash scenes, crime scenes, fire scenes, hazmat scenes and natural disasters.” But those are just examples of what an “exigent circumstance” might be.
So feel free to think of any other use you might consider “exigent” and no more privacy expectations, baby, buh-bye! And as “exigent” is just a lawyerly way of saying “urgent” or “pressing,” it’s awfully subjective. It presents a low burden of proof to justify even the most spurious deployment.
All this keeping in mind that Sargent defined locating homeless encampments as a “search and rescue” operation and as such would qualify as an exigent circumstance. There is absolutely nothing in this draft policy that prevents the cops from using a drone to locate homeless encampments. It may as well explicitly encourage it.
Short of an update to the policy, we’re left with taking the cops at their word and as outlined, it lacks a certain credibility. Their word has been constantly shifting over the past few months, all the while exposing glaring inconsistencies. Sargent and Saucier have put themselves in a position where they’ve made claims so opposite that one necessarily has to be a lie. What’s more, both of them have made public statements contradicting their own previous public statements.
All along, there’s been a very simple solution: Remove the passage about the unhoused from the “search and rescue” section of the proposal document, and update the draft policy to say clearly that the drone will not be used to assist the Quality of Life Team’s homeless outreach efforts. It would take a matter of minutes and would satisfy the lion’s share of the council’s concerns. Two quick little tweaks.
And, obviously, if you want to use the drone to flush out homeless encampments, just fuckin’ say so. Stand behind your policy decision. Defend it.
Instead, it looks like the cops are trying to placate the city council by bullshitting them. They’re trying to get off by just saying any old thing while at the same time refusing to do anything of substance to address the concern. And I think it’s going to work. I think the majority of the council is happy to be bullshitted and doesn’t care. I mean just look at what Toomey said on the matter to close the meeting Wednesday:
“I think to understand that some people were, you know, very upset over something that actually wasn't being said, uh, you know, it wasn't.. wasn't… it was like… just not something that was going to happen. And I think folks got very, uh, upset about it. And when people started listening, I think they realized that it’s… this isn't going to be… I mean, clearly… the policy, I think, was very well written.”
A statement like that, however bungled, gets one point across quite clearly. It says “I refuse to understand the issue and I will help you lie about it.” And I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with that. How can you have a policy argument with someone who won’t even try to understand your position? It’s just indicative of the depressingly low bar on the Worcester City Council. It’s probably why the cops have felt so comfortable bullshitting them.
So the proposal is going to city council on Tuesday with the 3–0 recommendation from Toomey’s subcommittee and it’s very likely that it will go through without any protections against using it to hunt the homeless and with the use still clearly outlined in the proposal. The discussion is going to be depressingly stupid. The City Council will demonstrate that, as currently constituted, it is not capable of exerting any power whatsoever over the police department—that the majority of councilors don’t consider it part of their job and happily accept this dynamic. Led by the hand through the fog.
And yet again, the cops get what they want.
And so we conclude another post about police drones and our futility to stop them. Great stuff! Between drones and shotspotter our police department is laying the groundwork for a science fiction book played out in real time
Big thank you to local legand and hopefully two-time City Council candidate Yenni Desroches who compiled a master document of public comments and reports related to drones in Worcester. If you’d like access to that, send me a line.
And the funny thing is that Worcester’s got nothing on the rest of the country when it comes to letting cops think up insane ways to use this technology.
Luckily, the one thing Worcester’s policy does have is a ban against equipping drones with weapons. That, apparently, was not a restriction Saucier felt would handcuff the department. Or maybe it’s an argument he lost. Hop on the Worcester Council Theater 3000 twitch stream with us Tuesday night to see what sort of wacky thing Saucier will say next!!
And then just look at Boston to see exactly where we’re headed with this whole drone business. It’s a real If You Give A Mouse A Cookie-style scenario, but the cookie is your right to privacy and the cops are the hungriest little mice. The Globe last week published a substantive overview of the situation at the Boston Police Department. Might be paywalled, so here’s a little taste.
In early March, the department purchased another high-performance drone and plans to create a drone team to operate it, according to documents obtained by the Globe. The $25,000 aircraft is the department’s eighth drone in active use, according to the department, and one of its most advanced. A police spokesman, Sergeant Detective John Boyle, said the use of all department drones remains limited to approved operations, such as crime-scene reconstruction or monitoring security during special events including the Boston Marathon.
But the expansion renewed concern that police drones could be used to carry out routine surveillance that violates people’s Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted searches. Last fall, the City Council passed an ordinance that will require the department to disclose all previous and future surveillance technology purchases to the council, starting July 20. In addition to requiring the department to obtain permission from the council before purchasing new technology, the ordinance also allows the council to review technology already purchased by the police and decide whether the department may continue using it.
And then later in the story, the Globe quotes Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the Massachusetts ACLU, who makes the exact same point about Boston’s policy that I have been making about Worcester’s, which I have to admit was a nice confirmation that I’m not losing my mind.
Since the current police policy says ”department drones may be deployed including, but not limited to the following situations, that means they can be used for anything,” she said. “That’s not a limitation.”
I know I’ve been hammering the drone thing especially hard, but it’s not for no reason. This is a new frontier. It’s a chance to get ahead of a new technology and prevent its misuse.
So if you like my somewhat obsessive focus on the subject please consider a paid subscription so that I can keep obsessing :-) Since it’s likely we’re not going to stop the acquisition, now we have to start thinking about how we’re going to track drone deployments and make sure this information is as public as possible.
I got another order of shirts in! If you pre-ordered one back in April, it’s going in the mail tomorrow. And then later this week, big update to the Worcester Sucks merch store!! Stickers, pins, tote bags, etc. A veritable lifestyle brand of Worcester sucking and us expressing our love for it!
Did you know I’m going to Europe next week and I’ll be there for the rest of June? I’m going with Worcester thrash metal band High Command to do roadie-style activities, and I will also be writing about the various cities I’m in and things that are better about them (or maybe worse?) than Worcester. I will also be actively searching for former City Manager Ed Augustus who will allegedly be in Europe the same time I am. Though I know not where. Still, I will be playing my own little game of Where’s Augusto and will report any successes.
Oh! And congratulations to the E. Central Street Starbucks on their successful unionization drive!! Not a single vote against. I interviewed a few of the organizers a couple months ago as they were starting their campaign over on the Worcester’s Good But Hurts podcast.
Ok that’s all folks!