Discover more from Worcester Sucks and I Love It
King vs Everybody
He's the only good one we got (for now!)
The City Council meeting this week was a tough one to watch, especially when it came to two Police Department issues near and dear to the Worcester Sucks project: body cameras and the ShotSpotter Connect program, which employs a problematic artificial intelligence to dictate where patrols are assigned and when.
The upshot is that the City Council struck down Councilor Khrystian King’s motion to remove federal COVID relief money from a plan to give the cops body cameras, and they struck it down hard, a 1-10 vote. They also let an entirely lacking report on the first three months of ShotSpotter Connect slide with little scrutiny.
On both issues, King was the only one in the room who appeared to take the oversight responsibilities of the City Council seriously. Further, other councilors went out of their way to buttress, counter, and block King’s attempts at oversight. In doing so they put on full display the culture of a City Council that sees itself not so much as an executive board but as a liaison between the administration and residents, tasked with explaining to the proles why they’re dumb and wrong and how City Manager Ed Augustus Jr. is a benevolent genius and a gift to the city.
In a moment of visible frustration, after seeing his motion fail miserably and his demands for better ShotSpotter data brushed off, King leaned in to make a wider point. He enunciated each word slowly and deliberately while looking around the room.
“I will certainly say—as it seems to be a necessary mantra on this committee—that I support providing the police and fire (departments) with the tools that they need.
“And,” King said, letting the word hang in the air, “I support us, as a council, providing fiscal and appropriate oversight. And they are not mutually exclusive.”
The statement—that he even needs to say it—lays bare a cold political truth: there is no oversight of the Police Department in this city. The City Council, the only democratically elected political body in the city with the authority to do it, simply won't. The cops get what they want and the council is there merely to justify it should anyone dare protest. In the meantime, councilors repeat that “necessary mantra,” as King called it. I support the Worcester Police Department.
Setting out to write this column it was my intention to dive into both the cams and ShotSpotter, but I went so long on the cams word mark before even touching on ShotSpotter that it was getting excessive. So from here on out we’re just going to zoom way on in on the 10-1 vote this week to give COVID relief money to the cops.
I’m going to preface this dive by saying it’s my opinion that body cameras are not the good investment the council makes them out to be. In this opinion I’m at odds with the entire council, even, unfortunately, King. Adopting a body camera program is a unanimous consensus and the probability of that changing is slim to none.
When Kamz for Kopz first came onto the scene way back in the Obama years it was with good intentions (mostly, probably, maybe etc.). Cops on video are less likely to indulge in violent and/or shady abuses of power, the thinking went, and in more advanced municipalities across the country they were quickly adopted. But the cameras were always a technocratic solution to an institutional problem and as such doomed for failure. It’s like giving Google Maps to someone who gets lost on purpose. We’ve had half a decade to see that cameras are not the silver bullet solution we once thought they could be. As early as 2016, the premise began to fall apart. Cops can just turn the cameras off, turns out! The footage is often unusably bad and more often improperly stored. When the body camera does its job to the letter and catches a clear abuse of power, accountability is still a coin toss. By 2020, a consensus emerged in media and academia that body cams really don’t do a whole lot to curb police brutality. At this time—coincidentally, I’m sure—right-wing lawmakers began championing the technology. Here in Worcester, we launched a pilot program in 2019, which came with sweet perks like a new cell phone and a paid stipend for participating officers. Slowly our local police unions warmed to the idea (also a coincidence I’m sure) and now cameras enjoy their full support.
It’s important to understand that people in Worcester were pushing for body cameras as early as 2015 but it wasn’t until the police unions signed on, in 2020, that it became politically viable. While the rest of the country was coming around to the uselessness of body cameras, Worcester was just gearing up to give it a go.
Shielding officers from accountability is a primary function of police unions. If the unions scoff at the idea of a civilian review board (they have) but support body cameras, could it be that one has teeth and the other doesn’t? One is a real accountability measure and the other a silly gadget disguised at one? But I’ll leave my opinion on the technology at that. If you want more on the cams, I wrote a whole-ass piece on ‘em last year.
The matter at hand this week is not so much the cameras as where the city is finding the money to buy them. It’s a consensus in the halls of Worcester politics that body cameras are happening so they’re going to happen and that’s that. The real sticking point—for King, the local chapter of the NAACP, Defund WPD and many others in our community—is that the City Manager’s plan calls for just shy of $200,000 to be pulled from an initial round of American Rescue Plan Act funding to go toward an overall $1.5 million plan to start getting cameras on cops. Select cops, mind you. This isn’t even close to the cost of a full rollout and think about what $1.5 million dollars could accomplish in one of the city’s elementary schools with a decade-long list of maintenance backlogs. Anyway, this is how the manager put together his funding plan...
If you’re unfamiliar with the American Rescue Plan Act, it’s basically a gigantic sum of money being sent from the federal government to every state, city and town across the country. The stated purpose is to help those hardest hit by the pandemic and launch an equitable recovery. Though the restrictions on what cities can legally use the money for are nebulous and wonky, the intention as outlined by the Biden administration is to help those hardest hit by COVID—BIPOC communities, the economically disenfranchised, small businesses. New stuff for the cops runs extremely contrary to the stated goal of the funding, as King and others have pointed out loudly over the past two weeks.
“I think trying to be true to the purpose and intention, as we heard last week from the people, from the public, is important,” King said at the meeting this week. “As much fidelity as we can have makes sense. This sort of appropriation here I think we can figure out from other places.”
Though it’s a relatively small amount of money, given the city has an overall pool of at least $146 million in ARPA funds to work with, it’s also one of the first drips of ARPA funding we’re seeing actually allotted, and it doesn’t bode well for how the Augustus administration will choose to dole out the rest of the pie.
King’s suggestion was that Augustus and his team find some other funding source—somewhere less overtly insulting to the communities hit hardest by the pandemic and who need the relief money most—for the $200,000. (Might I personally suggest the Police Department’s budget! For some reason this suggestion is beyond the pale!!).
But the idea was met with a big ‘fuck you, pal’ from the entire room.
Matt Wally, the next councilor to speak on the matter, said “We have the funding in front of us” and that he’s not going to support telling the city’s financial team to go back and rework it if they already figured out a way to pay for it. He did not mention the fact it was money given to the city for COVID relief, which is a cowardly way of rhetorically ducking the moral argument behind King’s motion. George Russell, District 3 councilor, riffed on Wally’s duck, saying “I don’t care which pocket it comes out of.” District 1 Councilor Sean Rose said that if ARPA funds help expedite the body program, he’s all in. District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera, perhaps the overall second-most left-leaning councilor behind King, demonstrated she’s in second place by a mile. Her statement was bewilderingly vague:
“There’s many conversations and I know there’s been multiple opinions on body cameras but initially the conversation came up many people were in support of body cameras,” Rivera said. “I still have a lot of mixed feelings in regards to body cameras but I’ve seen the importance of body cameras playing out in support of our community as well.”
That can mean anything you want it to!
She also, apparently, had a hard time understanding the vote. It took two tries for her to register her “no.” Piping in through zoom, she claimed connection problems and brough the meeting to a groaning halt as she asked the mayor to re-explain King’s motion. She initially voted yes, supporting King, then asked for a re-consideration. She voted “yes” again on the second roll call but quickly changed it to “no.” Petty audibly sighed. It’s unclear to me still whether she understands the vote, and it was embarrassing to watch.
I like Rivera just fine overall. She’s done good things, and she has been wonderfully and effectively antagonistic toward Superintendent Maureen Binienda on race issues. She’s demonstrated her heart is in the right place. We could do a whole lot worse with the D4 seat. But I’m not doing my job if I don’t call it when I see it. The way she handled this particular vote warrants a certain skepticism. Talking about the need for racial equity, as she often does, is inarguably a good thing. Class divisions and racism are real problems in Worcester and using your bully pulpit to center that issue is righteous and important. But talking is also easy. With his motion, King offered Rivera an opportunity to demonstrate she really means it—to go against the mayor and the city manager and the consensus of the council and say with her vote that this use of COVID relief money is deeply inequitable. That she opted to go the other way—and in a manner so bungled it’s possible she didn’t even know what she was voting on—confirms a suspicion I’ve harbored for a while: Care as she may about racial and economic equity—and I truly believe she does—at the end of the day she’s just a good soldier. She’s a Joe Petty or a Sean Rose. The scope of her ambitions and objectives exist within the party apparatus, and so she’ll reliably fall in line when the time comes to do so. She’s in the center bloc of the council. She might be bent toward a progressive vote on certain issues, but only on orders. Everything about the way she presents her politics publicly would lead one to believe she would have joined King in voting against this use of COVID relief funds. She didn’t, and the most reasonable conclusion is that she didn’t because Petty didn’t. And Petty has long made it clear that he sees his role as the lead evangelist of the Augustus administration. Ed can do no wrong, and Joe is there to tell you why.
Shortly before the vote, Augustus got up and, as he so often does, adopted the affect of an adult explaining a difficult concept to a small child. It’s an extremely annoying thing that he does and it betrays a condescension toward both the council and the public. Cutting through the overly bureaucratic and corporatized manner in which Augustus chooses to speak, he more or less said, ‘Hey, you guys told me you want body cameras so this is how we’re gonna do body cameras. We have to use the COVID relief money. It’s the only way. There’s no alternative so don’t bother asking.’ This is the actual quote: “This is the first vehicle moving where we have funding to actually move that forward. So I’m coming back to the council with what you asked for: expedite the body camera program.”
This is the first vehicle moving where we have funding to actually move that forward.
Ummmmm, okay. You’re making Charlie Baker sound like a man of the people with a line like that, Ed! Is this a city government or a freakin hedge fund? What he’s saying is if you want it done fast, you have to use the COVID relief money. What he’s leaving out, in part because no one pressed him on it, is why there’s such a rush to get this done now that we have to dip into the pandemic recovery fund. It’s been more than half a decade since body cameras first came onto the scene and every year their uselessness becomes more clear. But now, in 2021, we have to dip into the COVID money to get it done because it’s such a pressing priority?
That question wasn’t asked. And, of course, Ed’s condescending affect worked like a magic spell on his little pet councilors. King’s motion to find a new revenue source for some $200,000—pretty easy stuff!—was met with a resounding ‘no’. King in favor, all others opposed. On so many issues as it relates to the police over the past few years, this has been the dynamic. King is the only councilor who has proven he has the stones and the willpower to exercise his authority to oversee and scrutinize the police. The rest of the council has abdicated that responsibility.
We’ll likely find out ahead of the meeting next week how City Hall plans to administer the majority of the COVID relief pie. There have been community input sessions—begrudgingly added, mind you—and notable calls for a bigger share than initially outlined going toward affordable housing, which may or may not be answered. The way this small amount of ARPA money was handled does not inspire much confidence that the will of the residents will hold much consideration.
It would have been so easy for the manager to tweak his body camera funding proposal to satisfy the concerns of residents. He had more than a week. The sum in the context of a budget the size of Worcester’s is pocket change. He could have acknowledged, even on the level of pure optics, that using COVID relief funds to give the police a new toy was a bad look that was easily avoidable. Instead, he made the conscious decision to leave it as is, and in doing so he suffered no political consequence. The rest of the council had his back.
In other cities it’s not like this. There’s real oversight of COVID relief money. There’s real scrutiny. There’s real commitment to the spirit of equity with which this money was given. Look only to Boston, the city whose economic coattails the Augustus administration so desperately clings, to see how things are handled differently. The city government there launched an Equitable Recovery Taskforce comprised of community members to oversee the administration of funding. “The Taskforce will meet in the coming weeks and months to advise the Mayor on investment recommendations and ensure that the City leverages federal resources for the short- and long-term benefit of Boston residents, with an intentional focus on those who have been hurt most by the pandemic,” per the city. In Worcester, calls for similar oversight bodies have gone unanswered. There’s an entire webpage dedicated to the new money, including links to programs accessible to the public and also a budget data visualization dashboard. In Worcester, we were offered an initial proposal, buried in a council meeting packet, and subsequent smattering of hearings accompanied by a short online survey. There exists no oversight board, save for the City Council’s alleged authority over the city manager. A quick google search reveals that ARPA funding advisory boards are commonplace in municipalities large and small throughout the state.
Here in Worcester, however, we’ve opted for blind faith and deference. King couldn’t get a $200,000 allotment of ARPA money augmented. There’s $146 million left to administer, left to the discretion of a city manager who hardly bothers to engage with even the theater that he is beholden to the City Council.
When I first tweeted out the basic framework of this story Tuesday night, I found this comment from Cara Berg Powers (a true badass around these parts I must say) particularly insightful.
It’s little moments like this, repeated over and over and over for years, that would disincentivize any sane person from caring, from paying attention, from feeling like they had any agency at all in the supposedly democratic process of city government. It’s on this, the seemingly intentional disaffection of the electorate, that I think our two new incoming City Councilors, Etel Haxhiaj and Thu Nguyen, can do the most damage. Unabashed progressives the both of them, they have the opportunity to join King in a voting bloc that can earnestly press the city administration in a left direction. With just three votes on an 11-person board, it’s not a change of the guard. It’s not some instant new dawn. But it’s an opportunity to say, you know, this is what we could be doing! Wouldn’t it be great if we did this? Wouldn’t it be great if we had, like, a real civilian review board for the police department and the bus stayed fare free and we invested in affordable housing and permanent supportive housing for the unhoused and we took climate change seriously and, fuck it, why not let’s do rent control? It would catch people’s attention. It would bring them in and say ‘Hey, this machine can actually work for you.’ Of course anything truly progressive like that is going to fail at first, but the failing will be instructive. It’ll smoke the real enemy out and present a clear case for more involvement in the process. We can say ‘If we can take just a few more seats for the good guys in the next election, this is what we’ll be able to do.’ I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. You really can’t blame people for not giving a shit about city politics. I can only speak to Worcester but I’m sure it’s a more universal theme.
There’s this phrase I said or tweeted or put in a column years ago that I keep coming back to and at first it was a glib attempt at humor but the more I learn about how things work around here the more I come to realize how true it is. The subject of this column is as fine an example as any of the truth in it. If I can borrow King’s words, I might say it’s been my “necessary mantra”:
Worcester is a city that punishes you for caring.
We’ve good reason to hope we can create a Worcester in which a phrase like that carries no resonance. But man, we got a long way to go.
First of all let me just say thank you for reading and subscribing and affording me the time and freedom to write about Worcester in such a wacky way. This post is like 3,500 words long and it’s about a 15-minute time period at the City Council meeting this week. Who does that? I hope you learned something from it or at the very least it hardened your contempt for City Hall :-)
Please consider throwing me a couple bucks a month if you can! Direct reader contributions are my only revenue source.
The Worcester Council Theater 3000 stream was a lot of fun this week and we even brought on Councilor-elect Etel Haxhiaj and she was great! Tune in next Tuesday at 6 p.m.! It’s a lot of fun. You can find it on the Wootenanny Twitch page. Making a Twitch account is really quick and simple and then you can follow the page and always know when we’re going live. It’s also where the title of this post came from. While me and Bryan O’Donnell and Shaun Connolly and whoever else we convince to come on ramble and hoot and holler, Travis Duda is off-screen making funny little shops and memes to throw up on the stream. This is one of them.
Hey this newsletter has an Instagram now! Give it a follow or else!!!! For better or worse I have enlisted one a Gen Z to manage it. Yeet! Say less! Jk Jack Murray is great and he’s gonna do a great job with it.
In case you missed it I wrote a very weird one last week. It had nothing to do with Worcester at all, it was more about burnout and the suffocating feeling of the neverending pandemic and also some other things. It got a lot of good responses though I think it’s one of the better things I’ve ever written.
If you took the time to write me a thoughtful response to this piece and I haven’t gotten back to you yet I promise I will! Not ignoring you! I was overwhelmed with the amount of extremely well written and thoughtful responses this post elicited and I want to give myself the time to respond thoughtfully to each one. That’s a good problem!!
Ok this seems like a good place to end it. Ciao!