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"Special considerations for plain-clothes personnel"
The body cam issue is a shambles and we all know why
Up at the top here, as an epigraph of sorts, I want to go back in the time machine to the Nov. 15, 2022 City Council meeting when councilors were discussing the then-newly announced Department of Justice investigation of the Worcester Police Department. Let’s look at this little exchange:
Councilor Khrystian King: In my opinion Mr. Chairman this is a direct result of lack of oversight by us as a council, our public safety committee, our administration...
Councilor Kate Toomey: “mhm” *giggles smugly*
King: ...If we had been able to take this sort of action independently the Department of justice wouldn’t be here Mr. Chairman.
King looks over at Toomey.
King: I don’t think it’s funny. I don’t think it’s something to giggle about.
Then, a few minutes later...
Toomey: I don't appreciate being told that I do nothing but rubber stamp and just support blindly...
King: But you do.
Toomey: ...because it’s not true...
King: It is true. It is true.
Toomey: ...so I hope we have a little bit more decorum around here in terms of comments.
King: It is.
Some moments later...
Mayor Joe Petty: Councilor Toomey I don’t think you rubber stamp either.
Who do we think is right here? King or Toomey and Petty? Well this post today will go a ways toward answering that question I think.
As you may well have heard by now, Toomey did one of the most disrespectful things I’ve seen a councilor do last week.
Everyone else in the chamber had their eyes closed like Sean Rose did over on the righthand side of the video. Not Kate though! You hear the ding of what sounds like a Facebook message and then she checks her phone like no one would notice but what she should have known is she was on live TV. And then she sent a message back.
And not only did she text through a prayer for Black lives while haplessly pretending not to, she then held every single order Councilor Khrystian King filed regarding police accountability.
After the fact, she must have felt bad about it, or at least bad about getting called out. At the very late hour of 2:30 a.m. following the meeting, she tweeted this:
And posted this longer version to Facebook:
But she deleted both, which frankly makes it even worse. Weird thing to post at 2:30 a.m. and even weirder she thought it would do anything about being caught on camera being so disrespectful. But then delete it? What are you doing, Kate?
This was a widely shared video and a good way to start seeing just how Kate Toomey operates. Sort of a visual metaphor. But really it’s just the tip of the iceberg, and Toomey herself is just the tip of another, bigger iceberg: the failure of the City Council to meaningfully oversee the Worcester Police Department.
The body camera discussion on Tuesday night is a good entry point for understanding that larger iceberg. It checked all the boxes: police officials barely listening and giving half-answers to city councilors, councilors going out of their way to shill for the police, police union officials negotiating against the city manager in public, and the powers that be loudly proclaiming they’ve gotten something done when really nothing has been done at all.
Toomey’s subcommittee meeting yesterday is like a little cherry on top of this iceberg, making it a sundae. We’ll get to that later in the post.
This post btw is like standard local journalism meeting coverage if you gave “standard local journalism meeting coverage” mushrooms and sent it through the Salvador Dalí Museum then said “write about these three meetings at once.” But that’s what I make the big bucks for around here if you choose to give me them :-)
On Tuesday, the council took up the several body camera items that King put on, after Toomey delayed them last week without saying why and shortly after she texted through Rivera’s prayer. Perhaps not by accident the extra week Toomey gave the items allowed them to be accompanied by a new report from the police department on body cameras. We’ll be taking a look at that in a minute, but first here’s King’s orders:
Order 11b asks for a detailed update on the police equity audit which was supposed to happen alongside the city’s but has not happened yet.
Order 11c asks for an update on body cameras
Order 11d is essentially the same thing but worded differently, so as to reflect the time in 2020 King asked for a similar report.
Order 11e is a request to go into executive sessions for contract talks on the body camera program.
Toomey also scheduled a rare meeting of the Standing Committee on Public Safety, which she chairs. The one that happened yesterday. None of those items were on that agenda. Another potential reason for why she decided to hold the items. Had the conversation happened last week, before Toomey was able to publish an agenda, she might have had to talk about this stuff in subcommittee.
But anyway, let’s look at this new body camera report from Worcester Police Chief Steven Sargent. It’s certainly something.
The body camera program that we’ve been talking about since 2014 is set to commence on Feb. 27, per the report—300 cameras on officers, purchased by Axon Enterprise Inc. The cameras will require three new “redaction analyst” hires in the law department, positions which will be filled by cops on overtime until they’re properly filled (read: if they’re filled). In his summary of the chief’s report, City Manager Eric Batista said he strongly believes the body cams “will enhance the department's mission to protect our residents and keep the community safe.”
Attached is a six-page policy document outlining the proper use of the cams and storage of the tapes. The City Council had requested that the ACLU review the policy, and in his report Sargent acknowledges they did in fact review it. Buuuut he very quickly includes this little line:
While The ACLU does not endorse the body camera policy, they did review and offer their input on the police as requested by your honorable body.
You might expect that such a line would be accompanied by at least a summary of what it is the ACLU objected to in the policy, but read enough of Sargent’s reports to the city council and you’ll learn such an expectation is unreasonable. There is nothing in the report articulating any of the issues the ACLU had. Not a word. He just moves on to the next thought, which is meant to be read as a reassurance, I think.
The policy has been shared and discussed with the entire Police Department with a high level of detail. Officers have developed a solid understanding of what is expected of them.
Translation: The ACLU doesn’t like the policy but we do. Never mind the ACLU’s concerns. Not even worth including. If we like it, you should like it too.
At the meeting Tuesday, King asked what if anything the ACLU had to say about the policy. City Manager Eric Batista said that while the ALCU doesn’t endorse body camera policies as a rule, the city did take some of their suggestions and incorporated them into the policy. King asked if the Council had been made aware of those changes, which were also absent from the report. Batista said no. The suggestions went straight to the City Manager’s Office, not through the council (despite it being the council which had asked for them in the first place).
“Part of the request that came from the council was we would submit this policy to ACLU for review and feedback,” said Batista. “They provided that feedback to us and we were able to take some of those suggestions and recommendations and implement them in this policy.”
Like Sargent, Batista did not say what the feedback actually was. Luckily I already had an email in with the ACLU and on Wednesday a spokesperson told me exactly what the ACLU suggested and exactly what the city chose to include from those suggestions.
They sent five suggestions, three of which had to do with the section on “procedures” and two of which were general. The ACLU confirmed that of the five suggestions, the city only adopted one of them: a piece on public records access. That particular suggestion read like this:
There is no mention of how public access to the footage will be handled. This includes requests from victims and public records requests.
The other four suggestions were ignored, according to the ACLU. They were as follows.
All the issues related to the circumstances that may fall on subsections C, D, E, F, G, and H should be noted in the police report filed after the event for which the BWC was activated. For example, if a civilian refuses to be recorded, that should be noted.
Subsection E: If the cameras record sound, civilians must be notified that they are being recorded pursuant to Massachusetts wiretap law.
Subsection I: This section should be changed. BWC officers shall never be allowed to review the footage before giving the first statement/report about the incident. Best practice in Massachusetts on this issue flows from the state legislature’s Body Worn Camera Task Force. In its report, the task force recommended that "an officer may not access or view any recording of an incident involving the officer before the officer is required to make a statement about the incident."
There is no mention of the requirement to get a warrant for the use of BWC footage for investigatory purposes unrelated to the original incident. This was established in the case Commonwealth v. Yusuf, 488 Mass. 379 (2021)
Batista told the council he was able to “take some of those suggestions and incorporate them in the policy.” The more accurate statement is that he took one of the suggestions—and to my mind, a rather baseline piece of policy language which should have already been in there—and discarded the other four.
There’s a parallel here between Sargent’s skirting over the ACLU’s objection, Batista’s mischaracterization of it, and Toomey texting through Sarai’s prayer! All betray a certain sort of mentality!
Anyway, let’s take a closer look at this policy. To my mind, there’s a lot of wiggle room here. And before we get into the specifics, I just want to say that I’ve been beating the “body cameras are useless” drum for a long, long time. From my 2020 post “The Case Against Body Cameras.”
Body cameras wiggled their way into the Overton Window in 2014 after Ferguson and the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests. The idea came into vogue among liberal media elite and the Obama Administration pumped $23 million in federal grants to help departments purchase them. By 2016, nearly half of all departments in the country had adopted some form of body camera program, though they vary widely under America’s insane and decentralized policing system. The basic idea, as I’m sure we all remember, was that cops on camera would behave better than cops sans-camera. In the years to come, cops would prove again and again that a camera is no match for the deep layers of immunity and protection afforded by their respective departments and the state in general and the systems of white supremacy which they swear to uphold.
Ah, well. We’re doing it, I guess.
The department’s body cam policy is split into six sections: general considerations, procedures, deployment, internal access/review, footage retention and restrictions.
It’s in the “procedures” and “deployment” section where we see the bulk of the worrying language.
Under “procedures,” the issue of when, and when not, to activate the cameras is addressed in some detail. The cameras are to be activated on all 911 emergency calls, as well as non-emergency calls for service, “police initiated investigations/stops” and “when ordered by a supervisor.” But there’s a big exception here: “Officers are not required to record normal casual conversations/encounters that do not correspond with the above noted circumstances.” The potential here for officers to claim an incident was a “normal casual conversation/encounter” and thus not worthy of body camera footage seems evidently high. A convenient “out” baked into the policy to be used as needed.
Another such “out” comes in the next line: “...officers shall not compromise their safety or the safety of others to obtain (body cam) recordings when activation is not tactically feasible.” Seems to me it would be quite easy for an officer to claim it was “not tactically feasible” to activate a body camera in a wide variety of potential circumstances. A term like “tactically feasible” could mean pretty much anything in any circumstance because it doesn’t actually mean anything. And that feels like it’s on purpose.
Councilor Thu Nguyen at the meeting Tuesday asked for clarification on what “tactically feasible” means. The answer from Lt. Sean Murtha, department spokesman, was less than clear. “The obvious scenario” he said is when an officer is driving and drives past someone who is being stabbed. Can’t make that up. “That’s what we had in mind. Otherwise, Murtha provided no further clarity.
So here we see two carve-outs in the policy for when officers can keep the camera off—if it’s a “normal casual” encounter or if it’s a situation where activation is not “tactically feasible.”
And then there’s the issue of deactivating the camera. “If an officer deactivates his or her (body cam) before the end of the incident, the officer shall note the reason why in his or her incident report.” Maybe it was just “casual”? Or not “tactically feasible” maybe? If so, all good!
Per the policy, officers will be able to review the body camera before writing their reports, except in incidents where “Level 4 or 5 of the Use of Force Model” is employed. Level 5 is deadly force, Level 4 is less-than-deadly force, like tasing someone or taking them to the ground.
When that kind of violence is deployed they write their report first then they look at the footage and they have to point out the differences. In all other situations, they can use the body camera footage to revise their version of events as needed before they’re submitted to the public record.
At the meeting Tuesday, King implored the city manager to change this language so that officers cannot review camera footage under any circumstances. Nguyen followed King in requesting the policy not allow officers to review footage before writing a report in any instance. Statewide best practices are to not have officers review footage, they said. Best practices like this are very clearly detailed in a 2022 report from the State Legislature’s Law Enforcement Body Worn Task Force
“It’s a best practice that is known,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen also asked what if any repercussions there are for not following the policy. Sargent chose not to answer this question, instead answering an earlier one then quickly stepping away from the mic. I didn’t see anything about repercussions in the policy myself.
You’ll notice this point about reviewing footage was also the third suggestion offered by the ACLU above. Since he already ignored the ACLU, it stands to reason he will also ignore King and Nugyen’s suggestions.
In the “deployment” section of the policy however is where we see the most worrying passage. No one at the meeting Tuesday addressed this part, unfortunately. It’s “Section 2.D: Special Considerations for Plain Clothes Personnel.” This is where we really jump the shark in terms of pretending body cameras will do anything. Here it is in full:
As I wrote about last week, “plain clothes” units are a common feature of police departments across the country, especially in cities, and including Worcester. While they’re called a variety of cop-speakish names, they all serve the same basic function: that of “elite operators” who are sanctioned and encouraged to use especially aggressive and violent tactics toward specific ends, usually “drugs” or “guns” or “gangs.” These units are typically seen in the milieu of law enforcement culture as the “tip of the spear” type operators, not unlike “special forces” units in the military. The Seal Team 6s. The cowboys. The badasses. Knights of the Order of the Punisher carrying the banner of the Thin Blue Line into the neighborhoods where the crime happens. Crusaders for the “rule of law.” They’re the guys who get the “results” politicians then use to claim crime is being fought.
They’re also the source of an overwhelming number of the high-profile killings, brutality, criminality and other such “bad apple” behavior that police reform measures like body cameras were proposed to ameliorate. Shocker! The cops with the longest leash go the furthest afield.
This is what happened in Memphis. These are the sort of cops who beat Tyre Nichols to death. They were members of the city’s “SCORPION” unit. They were a special plain-clothes task force. The overall themes of the Memphis story—”plain clothes unit” abuses power to deadly and/or criminal end—have been repeated in a whole lot of cities over the past several decades, leading to scandals like the Gun Trace Task Force arrests in Baltimore and the STRESS unit in Detroit and CRASH in LA etc. etc.
I’m going to stick this quote in here from my post last week, from Radley Balko, an expert on militarized policing, in the New York Times, as it bears repeating.
The SCORPION program has all the markings of similar “elite” police teams around the country, assembled for the broad purpose of fighting crime, which operate with far more leeway and less oversight than do regular police officers. Some of these units have touted impressive records of arrests and gun confiscations, though those statistics don’t always correlate with a decrease in crime. But they all rest on the idea that to be effective, police officers need less oversight. That is a fundamental misconception. In city after city, these units have proven that putting officers in street clothes and unmarked cars, then giving them less supervision, an open mandate and an intimidating name shatters the community trust that police forces require to keep people safe.
In Worcester, we have units which serve the same purpose as SCORPION and we’ve had them for a long time. The “gang unit” and the “vice squad” and the “neighborhood response team.” While there hasn’t been a national news-making incident here, there have been quite a lot of incidents! A notable concentration of the overall incidents! The sort of preponderance of incidents that would, say, get a police department investigated by the Department of Justice.
In 2018, local civil rights attorney Hector Piniero published a 750ish page call for investigation of 12 incidents of police misconduct and brutality, and every single one involved either the gang unit or the vice squad. From my post last week:
Piniero, in his letter, “charges that officers in drug investigations lie, fabricate evidence, file malicious charges and suppress exculpatory evidence,” the article reads.
I got my hands on a cover letter for this extensive call for investigation. It is not ambiguous who Piniero is talking about here. In this document we really see Worcester cops in the same types of “elite” units engaging in the same type of behavior as SCORPION and all the others. The cover letter details 12 specific instances in which cops engaged in the aforementioned “deception and misconduct.” Eight involve the Vice Squad. Six involve the Gang Unit. Two overlap, involving both. Every incident involves either the Gang Unit or the Vice Squad.
So now back to body cameras. It’s been eight years since they were first proposed here in Worcester as a tool for police reform and accountability. In those eight years plenty of departments across the country have adopted body cameras and we’ve had enough time to come to a sort of overall consensus that they might be sort of useful but they did not have the effect we initially desired from them. The killings have continued. The cameras have only served to make a more visceral spectacle of the killings for the folks at home. Better television.
And now the WPD is specifically outlining special considerations for its plain clothes units. From the policy:
“Plain clothes officers engaged in primarily information gathering activity (i.e. neighborhood canvas, interviewing of witnesses/victims, retrieving video evidence, routine licensing checks, conducting searches of electronic devices) may not be required to activate their (body cam). The activation of an officer’s (body cam) during these circumstances shall be at the discretion of the officer and or the unit supervisor based on the nature and needs of the particular investigation.”
“Special consideration shall be given to plain clothes officers regarding the manner of placement of the (body cam) on their uniforms of the day, at the discretion of the unit commander.”
I mean come on! Why even have them? What are we doing here?
The real cause of concern here–the thing that so obviously calls for reform and where reform has a chance of being meaningful–is going unaddressed while we continue to get dragged along by the police department in implementing a feckless accountability measure. We know exactly where the bad apples are, we’re just not doing anything about it. We’re watching the policy deliberately carve out policy language that prevents body cams from doing anything at all about the bad apples. Our city manager is nevertheless celebrating it as progress. Our public safety subcommittee met for the first time since last June and they didn’t even let alone the obvious thing they should be looking at. The committee is chaired by Toomey, someone who can’t even put her phone down for a moment of silence for the victims of police brutality. This is just madness. Cartoonish and absurd.
The madness just escalated and escalates when you consider the very real (though not quite confirmed) prospect that the police union is using body cameras as a cudgel to get raises. That’s basically what Rick Cipro, head of IBPO Local 504 and one-time City Council candidate, said during public comment at the meeting Tuesday.
He said the union has “always acted in good faith” in negotiating with the city. And he also said in less clear terms that body cameras mean pay raises for the cops wearing them. The cameras, he said, represent “a change of working conditions” which is a “mandatory subject of bargaining.” Of course, we don’t know that for sure. These collective bargaining sessions happen privately. But Cipro clearly painted it as a point of contention. Councilors who “support unions” should know the deal, he said.
“All we ask is a delayment” he said. Not sure if delayment is a real word but he got his point across.
I know I can’t say it with a certainty because it won’t be confirmed until the contract is agreed upon, but it very much seems like the police unions are willing to delay and delay until they get enough money for their officers to wear these cameras.
Kate Toomey all but confirmed that this is the case the following day at a meeting of the Standing Committee on Public Safety which she convened for seemingly no reason.
They discussed the body camera issue in the loosest of terms, as she couldn’t talk about this new body cam policy because it hasn’t been long enough yet (and whose fault is that? Maybe the person who held the discussion a week?). But it did come up as she went over a few informational reports which were on file since last June, the last time this subcommittee met. During that loose conversation, the following exchange happened. I’ve bolded the parts that need bolding.
Sargent: We will be starting the program on the 27th
Toomey: Well let’s hope that we can get everything done because it’s important that people are compensated appropriately...
Toomey: ...and all of that bargaining is done appropriately as well. We’ve had issues. It’s been around for a long time. We’ve been working on trying to get these body cameras for two years.
Sargent: For some time actually...
Deputy Chief Paul Saucier: In 2018 myself and several other officers went to Providence Police Department to actually evaluate their program. That’s when we started doing the research. That was 2018.
Toomey: Somewhere around 2019, 2020 I’d asked for the pilot. I remember distinctly my in law *chuckles* who was with the union was upset because I didn’t talk to them about it first. So... Uh. But it worked out. So that’s good.
Whose side do we think Kate is on here? Kate should be on the city’s side, supporting the city manager in these contract negotiations, but these comments very clearly indicate who it is she supports and who it is she feels she’s beholden to. Might be a clue as to who she was texting while Sarai was leading the prayer for Black lives! I don’t know that for sure obviously but hey it’s not a bad guess.
Every two years, Mayor Petty appoints Toomey, with her police union in-laws, to chairman of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and she continues to do nothing at all with that post, as she showed yesterday.
Mayor Petty, for his part, gleefully went along with George Russell’s suggestion that the council not meet with the City Manager in private after the meeting Tuesday, as King had proposed in one of his held orders, to discuss these contract negotiations. Getting worryingly animated and angry after Councilor Nguyen suggested they do meet, Petty said this:
“(Batista) has nothing to offer us,” Petty said of the manager. “It’s his responsibility. Not ours.”
All this is just a small glimpse into why it’s taken the city some eight years to implement this program. And now we’re learning that on top of having a policy which takes the most problematic officers off the hook for meaningfully using body cameras, the police union is willing to continue to delay implementation until they ensure cops are getting more money for wearing them. And there are three new positions in the law department that will be filled by overtime work of officers if no one is hired. Three new people to just review and redact the body camera footage before it’s made public. They don’t do anything else. The police union established on Tuesday they’re going to use this as a cudgel in collective bargaining to get as much city money as they possibly can in perpetuity. Doesn’t take a genius to see that’s the reason they support this, not the “accountability” or “public trust” it promises.
Despite all these lingering problems, Mayor Joe Petty saw fit to claim victory Tuesday night.
“I just want to thank everyone who was involved. You can see the community was involved. The ACLU was involved. The police department was involved. We came up with a pretty good policy,” he said. All this despite the fact the council doesn’t have a say in police policy as King established and the total lack of transparency around whether the ACLU’s suggestions were considered at all.
“This was put together on best practices to get this done,” he said, despite King and Nguyen earlier pointing out a part of the policy that was clearly at odds with best practices. The ACLU too.
And in the end the cops get what they want, in no small part because Toomey does indeed rubber stamp and that’s exactly why Joe Petty gives her that position.
Come November, they both need to go.
Thank you for reading! I’ve gotten a rash of new subscribers lately and that’s great. Most of them are free subscriptions which is also great, but it’s the paid subscriptions that allow me the time to continue writing these posts!
And some big personal news! I was selected as one of eight fellowships provided by the Worcester Arts Council in this year’s round of funding grants. The fellowship provides me with $3,000 to do with what I may in support of this Worcester Sucks project. I have a plan but I’m not ready to talk about it yet. For now I’ll just say I’m working on a way to make sure that the Worcester Sucks presence here in our fair city is an enduring one.
This Telegram op-ed from Nicole Bell, founder of LIFT op-ed is harrowing and well worth a read.
God it is so cold out tonight.
It doesn't matter how long I've been housed, off the streets and out of the life of prostitution - the howling of bitter cold winds always kicks up some stuff for me. It's not just cold here; with the wind chill, it's freezing.
I remember so many nights out on the streets without a coat, gloves, hat or scarf. I may have started the night with those things, but little by little over the course of the night and the cars I was in and out of, I'd end up with nothing.
I mattered so little to the men purchasing access to my body in those cars that they didn't bother saying, “Hey it's cold, you forgot your hat.”
I remember it being 10 past 7 p.m. and being so cold, I'd attempt to go to the shelter, hoping they'd have some compassion and let me in. But that never happened. They'd tell me I had to call the police and be escorted into the shelter. I wasn't going to do it because of fear of violence, harassment or arrest, and they knew that.
It comes with the recent news that homelessness is indeed on the rise in Worcester. Kudos to the city for doing a warming station during the recent cold spell and I should hope that we do so for future cold spells and also heat waves. I’d highly suggest watching City Councilor Etel Haxhiaj speak about this issue at the last council meeting. Councilor Nguyen grabbed the clip for their Instagram.
And before I leave you I just want to point to an editing mishap in my last post on plain clothes units. This line here may have been confusing and that’s because it shouldn’t have been there.
I updated the online version right away but if you read these in your email, there’s no way of changing that. Whoopsies.
Ok, ‘til next time!