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The Feds take aim at the Worcester Police Department
And not a second too soon
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When I woke up yesterday I planned to do a little reporting on all the restaurants closing in the Canal District. With the closing of Maddi’s Cookery and Taphouse, following Smokestack Urban Barbecue and Buck’s Burger Bar, there’s ample evidence to support the thesis that Polar Park is actually not very good for the budding urban commercial district next door.
Then I was going to read the Council agenda and settle into a nice easy City Council stream to watch a city manager appointment that’s been a foregone conclusion since Joe Petty appointed Eric Batista to the “acting” role back in April. (Tune in to the stream 6:15 p.m. every time there’s a council meeting on the Wootenanny Twitch channel!).
But BAM the United States Justice Department came along and changed my plans. I’m sure you could say the same for City Hall! Woof!
That’s right folks! The Department of Justice launched an investigation into the Worcester Police Department yesterday to “assess whether WPD engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force or engages in discriminatory policing based on race or sex.”
This is a HUGE deal. In this post I’ll attempt to provide the context necessary to understand just how big it really is. This investigation is an opportunity to critically assess the police department in a way the local power brokers have not allowed to happen in recent memory. Perhaps ever.
This is the very police department that City Councilors bent over backward to defend in 2020 amid calls to do something—anything at all—to reckon with its behavior and issues. We were made to endure countless diatribes about how here in Worcester, the police department is ~different~. We’re not like those other cities in those other places where the cops may or may not be a little bad. Here in Worcester, the cops are perfect. And that’s the end of the story.
Meanwhile, and subsequently, evidence to the contrary has continued to mount and mount and mount and mount. The department was forcing the city to shell out millions in use-of-force lawsuits. $4 million spread over some 30 lawsuits since 2010. Simultaneously, the city had been fighting the Telegram and Gazette to keep misconduct records private. They lost that judgment too, and had to pay a historic fine. But insofar as the majority of the city council was concerned, these were matters best left ignored. They stuck their heads in the sand like so many ostriches and pulled them out only to give the cops a new drone or artificial intelligence software to “forecast crime.”
Indeed, the past two years have demonstrated that the Council (as currently composed) is unwilling and unable to hold the police department to any sort of account. They simply do not consider themselves to be the department’s boss. Oversight is out of their purview. Kate Toomey, the councilor who has proven more than any of them to be a complete toady for the WPD, remains the chairwoman of the council’s Standing Committee on Public Safety, the subcommittee which could be the vehicle through which the council holds the police to account. But Toomey doesn’t use it that way, and Mayor Joe Petty knew that when he reappointed her to that role earlier this year. It’s not overly conspiratorial to assume that Toomey holds that position precisely because she can be trusted not to use it in any real way.
In this regard, as in so many others, the council has failed to do its job. Luckily, the Justice Department is stepping in to do what the council should have been doing for years. The DOJ will carry out a “pattern and practice investigation,” looking specifically at race and gender bias as well as the way officers choose to use force, according to a release posted this morning. From the release:
“Based on information provided to the Justice Department, we find significant justification to investigate whether the Worcester Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of racially discriminatory and gender-biased policing, and uses excessive force,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
The use of “significant justification” here is quite stern. It does not leave one with the impression this is some sort of routine audit. Continuing:
“Ensuring that our law enforcement officers act in a constitutional and non-discriminatory manner is among the highest priorities of the Department of Justice.”
I’m no lawyer but if the DOJ wasn’t concerned that there might be something unconstitutional going on in the way the WPD operates, they wouldn’t be throwing around “constitutional” the way Clarke does here. Fighting words, for sure. Going on:
“Our pattern or practice investigations are a key tool in our efforts to ensure community safety and promote constitutional policing across the country. We look forward to working with officials towards the shared goals of ensuring constitutional, effective policing and fostering greater trust between law enforcement officers and the community members they serve.”
Given what we’ve seen from the WPD over the past couple years, it’s a big stretch to assume there are any “shared goals” here. A department with the “shared goal” of “fostering greater trust” would act a little different. They wouldn’t fight the community’s paper of record over access to records which are legally public, and fight it in such a manner that the judge in the case’s ruling said they “did not act in good faith” and they obviously lost the suit. (Highly suggest reading Andrew Quemere’s big breakdown of that lawsuit in Dig Boston.)
The chief of a department interested in “fostering greater trust” with the community would not say that he’s never seen an instance of racism during his time with the WPD. But back in 2020, Chief Sargent said the very thing, and in no uncertain terms. He said it twice, in fact! And these comments weren’t caught on a hot mic or pulled out of a FOIA’d email. Both times, he said it at meetings with the community to address the community’s concern with racism.
At a Board of Health meeting in August of that year, he said...
“I can say through my entire career that I have not personally witnessed acts of racism by the Worcester Police Department.”
Then a few weeks later, he told the Human Rights Commission the same thing:
“In my 35 years I have not observed racism in the department. We would not allow it.”
Such statements, especially in such high-visibility contexts, are rather loud ways of showing he’s unwilling to even consider there’s a problem, let alone try and fix it. So no, there is no “shared goal” here. The WPD does not want to do better. Setting aside all the specific instances of clear racism and brutality in recent memory, the DOJ will have to engage with an institution which considers itself above reproach. One which reflexively internalizes any scrutiny as personal attack and defaults to the rhetorical position that centers the criticism itself as the problem while ignoring the substance of the critique. In the past two years we’ve seen it play out over and over again, from the violent handling of protestors in June 2020 to the budget to predictive policing to drones, and it’s worked like a charm every time. The opposition was easily squashed.
There’s a whole internal culture in American law enforcement, fueled by an attendant propaganda machine, which inoculates cops against the impulse to engage in serious self reflection. The Thin Blue Line as a mythos in the collective law enforcement imagination does functionally exist, but not in the way they image it. It’s not a line between order and disorder. It’s between the ideal and the real. Between how the police perceive themselves and the function they serve in real life. The Thin Blue line doesn’t stand in the way of disorder, it maintains it. Not some castle wall keeping the barbarian hordes of disorder at bay but rather a deprivation tank where the disorder can’t be seen or heard or felt. The Sargent quotes above are just particularly on-the-nose examples of a man who is fully within the tank. He will not willingly step out of it. (I went long back in Oct. 2020 on Sargent’s comments versus examples of obvious racism during his tenure, of which there were many.)
Skepticism this DOJ investigation will have any effect at all on the police department is warranted. Probably won’t. But it could! Anyway, that’s a question for a later time. The important thing right now is that the DOJ sees a problem here that’s big enough they want to dedicate resources to it. That in and of itself is an all-too-rare acknowledgement that there is a problem in a city staunchly committed to putting its fingers in its ears when the cops get brought up and going lalalalalalalala. To be sure, people have been saying there’s a problem for a long time, but those people are suppressed and scandalized by the local power structure. They also not coincidentally tend to be people of color or of modest economic means. They do not on their own have the power to get anything done besides civil lawsuits. Thus, the department is never comprehensively challenged by anyone who could realistically mount such an effort. Not with a City Council content to ignore and downplay every police issue that comes along.
The DOJ, though. That’s different. There’s some muscle there. It can’t be so easily ignored.
That’s what makes this such an opportunity. It’s leverage. It legitimizes critique while forcing the council’s bloc of cop-aligned toadies into a position where uncritical support is less tenable. More transparently feckless and goofy. In that way, it could be a necessary push to get real reform on the local level over the finish line. Not saying that will be the outcome but it’s a possible outcome.
At the end of the City Council meeting last night, the council took up an impromptu discussion of the investigation. While most of the people who spoke opted to kvetch about the fact they weren’t given ample prior notice—Kate Toomey and Candy Mero-Carlson, especially, Khrystian King’s comments were more in line with what I’m saying. He carefully laid out how this investigation could be useful if the Council and City Hall and the WPD put on their big boy pants and approach it like adults (not holding my breath!).
King said the fact the investigation was even launched is itself an indictment of the council’s failure to engage in proper oversight. He specifically called out Kate Toomey’s Standing Committee on Public Safety, which led her to have a very unprofessional hissy fit. But I digress.
“If we did our job, the DOJ wouldn’t be here,” King said. Later, he followed up on the sentiment, saying “we need to do more than just rubber stamping and asking for money.” Not a councilor saying something honest and true on the City Council floor! Wow!
The investigation, he said, could lead to tangible policy changes which would cut down on the amount of money the city has to spend on civil rulings against Worcester police officers. Allowing policies to continue uncritically which get the city routinely sued only results in “paying millions of dollars on the other end,” he said.
He made two motions, which were adopted without a fight, surprisingly. He filed an order demanding city staff put the investigation information prominently on the city’s website. There’s a hotline and an email address where people can submit evidence of civil rights violations. He also asked for a report on the ins and outs of the process. How we got here and where we’re going type of thing.
So yeah, like King said, we could be looking at a real opportunity to make the sort of substantive policy changes at WPD that we’ve so far been unable to. But that all depends on what the DOJ finds, and we won’t know about that for some time. So for now, let’s take a closer look at what exactly this investigation is and how it will work.
These DOJ pattern or practice investigations aren’t necessarily new. The program started in 1994. In the wake of the 2014 Black Lives Matter demonstrations, they were employed in places like Baltimore and Ferguson. But ever since good ol Jeff Sessions (remember him?) rescinded it back in 2018, the practice has taken on a new emphasis. Sessions got rid of the program on the belief it saddled police departments with “political correctness.” Not a joke. What really happened it is was an “Obama-era program” (even though it really wasn’t, his administration just made use of it) so that’s the only justification a guy like Sessions needed to get rid of it. But then last year, the guard having been sufficiently changed, Go Brandon’s Attorney General Merrick Garland reversed Session’s reversal. He reinstated the practice and said in no uncertain terms that the boys are back in town. Let the investigations continue.
Fast forward a year to this April, and the DOJ announced its first consent decree as a result of one of these recently-renewed investigations. Guess where it was? Springfield, Massachusetts, baby! Just an hour to our west. The city we tend to forget about, but one which is in many ways very similar to Worcester. One similarity, it would seem, is Springfield like Worcester has a very strong shield wall between the cops and public scrutiny. The DOJ, with this investigation, was able to get past it, if only by a little.
In Springfield, the investigation focused on the department’s narcotics bureau. They found the bureau routinely engaged in excessive force and failing to report such instances to superiors. The findings were pretty wild, including fabricated reports and a whole lot of violence. Here’s an example, by way of MassLive:
The report described at least two instances where Narcotics officers reported having “placed” or “escorted” suspects to the ground but photographs of the suspects show serious bruising. In one case an officer described a suspect as receiving “small cuts to the face” during an arrest, while photographs showed he had a large black eye, dark bruising on the right side of his face, additional abrasions on the left side of his face and nose and other injuries.
To put an end to stuff like this, the DOJ entered into something called a consent decree with the department. A consent decree is more or less a promise to make changes with some legal consequences attached. It puts a department in the position of seeing that it would be in their best interest to comply. It forces their hand. How exactly it forces their hand is a little wonky, but DOJ folks in a zoom meeting yesterday explained that it’s a combination of public pressure and threats to take away access to some pools of federal grant funding.
In their consent decree, Springfield officials promised to change some policies: use of force must be reported (wild it wasn’t already) and “scrutinized by supervisors.” And they’d have to train some use-of-force investigators to help with that scrutiny. A third-party monitor, appointed by the court, will oversee the implementation. In that case, the monitor is a firm called O’Toole Associates, which is headed by former Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole. Which is, you know, probably not who I would have picked. But anyway.
As this Worcester investigation gets underway, it would be safe to assume a similar outcome, at least in the basic form of it. A problem will be identified, the investigation will lead to a finding, a consent decree will be reached, and the police department will be obligated to change policies. In Springfield, this took about four years, though that may have been extended by Sessions’ muddling. The investigation was launched in 2018, concluded in 2020 and the consent decree was signed this year.
So far, in Worcester, we haven’t been told why exactly the DOJ decided to open its investigation. Obviously, they have an idea. Why would they open an investigation without one? But they haven’t made that idea public. In a zoom meeting yesterday afternoon DOJ officials explained that they don’t share specifics this early on in the process as a matter of course. But they did give us an overview of what generally causes them to open these investigations: court cases, media reports and complaints filed directly with the office. We don’t know what if any complaints they received, but we have seen our fair share of damning media reports and court cases in the past few years. Take, for example, the recent $8 million ruling against the WPD for a wrongful conviction that put a Latino man in jail for 16 years. Maybe that was the inciting incident of this DOJ investigation? It’s just one of a few recent news stories which could have done the trick.
But I think I’m going to save a rundown of those cases for its own post. It could be a book, honestly, and I’m a bit pressed for time as I’m playing a cool show tonight at Ralph’s (come hang!). A sort of “master list of things the DOJ should look into.”
But that brings me to the point I really want to make with this piece. In the zoom meeting yesterday, US Attorney Rachael Rollins and other DOJ folks were making it clear that they want as much input from the public as possible, and that now is the time to do it.
Anyone reading this who has anything to share should do so. Screenshots of racist statements made online, for instance, would be appropriate. Personal stories—even better.
There are two methods for sharing.
An email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A hotline: 888-221-6023
There will also be more community forums like the one yesterday, so I’ll do my best to give a heads up when I hear about those. I’m also going to prepare my own dossier of sorts for the DOJ because lord knows this newsletter is chock full of leads they should chase down. So if you’d rather share with me, I can pass the information along to the DOJ that way. Feel free to reach me any time at billshaner91 at gmail dot com.
Anyone interested in police reform here in Worcester should be taking the next couple weeks to dig up anything they can and provide it to the DOJ!
This is a huge and unprecedented opportunity and it’s on us to do everything we can to make sure we don’t blow it!!
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It is very funny if you think about it that Eric Batista was made the permanent city manager last night on the same exact day that the Department of Justice opened its investigation. Regular readers will know that I’ve written exhaustively about the spuriously insider method employed to appoint Batista, and if that wasn’t enough of a fog over his tenure, now he has to play go-between with the police and the DOJ. He’s in a tight spot!
The council vote/discussion about the appointment last night was rife with illuminating moments and I wish I had the time to dig into it, but I just do not have that time today. Not with all this DOJ stuff going on. Maybe later in the week, though!
For now, I’ll just say that the vote was, predictably, 8-3. King, Nguyen and Haxhiaj stood in opposition and all three laid out very cogent arguments as to why. So look out for a breakdown of how all that went down later this week.
And if you want to say hi and catch some cool tunes, come down to Ralph’s Rock Diner tonight! Starts at 8.
Television is on my short list of inspirational bands and there’s no better body of work to go through to learn how to become a true riff master. Richard Lloyd has had a long and interesting career since, and I’m very curious to see what sort of show he’ll be putting on. Mountain Man always puts on an insanely experimental and noisy and unique set. The Infinity Ring is one of the coolest dark folk projects around. I’m playing in the Evil Ones and we’ll be doing an upbeat set of Roky Erickson rippers. Stacked bill.
Singing Roky Erickson songs is a real treat and the band we put together to do em is awesome. Super stoked! Now I have to change my guitar strings and make sure I remember all Roky’s insane nonsensical lyrics. Til next time!!