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Winners of a pyrrhic defeat
The drone deal is all but sealed, however...
Finished reading Ministry for the Future today. It’s the first I’ve ever read by Kim Stanley Robinson and I found it to be a strangely uplifting read for a near-future sci-fi book focused around the impending climate apocalypse. At one moment late in the book—and no real spoilers here—the leader of the Ministry for the Future, an Irish woman named Mary Murphy, presents good news to the world in terms of the climate while processing the brutal assassination of one of her best team members by unnamed terrorists. This rant of an inner monologue hit me like a brick.
And if the real truth was in fact that they had somehow lost, then she was going to try to see to it that the evil ones were winning a Pyrrhic victory. They were going to be the losers of a Pyrrhic victory; and the losing side of a Pyrrhic victory could be said to have won. They were therefore the winners of a Pyrrhic defeat. Because they were never going to give up, never never never. History was going to go like this: lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, win. And the evil ones in the world could go down under the weight of their damned Pyrrhic victory. Murdering cowardly bastards that they were.
With so much losing going on around us every day, like we’ve jumped off the cliff and are now quickly figuring out the parachute is broken, the line about history going like this: lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, win is a stirring one. The idea of a pyrrhic defeat becomes a source of optimism.
The idea of a pyrrhic defeat is especially applicable to the drone situation. We are going to lose this one. The drone is going to a vote on Tuesday, Joe Petty said so. He also all but stated he’s going to vote in favor of it. I don’t see a situation in which this doesn’t pass. Even the most optimistic reading of the councilors’ positions suggests a 6–5 vote in favor. The cops are going to win. But in their path to victory, they’ve demonstrated in perhaps the clearest way they ever have, that they will lie to the council. They will take them for fools. They do not truly value civil liberties or privacy, and that they will try to sucker the council into believing they do while doing nothing materially to demonstrate it. In short, they’ve shown themselves to be above reproach—unbeholden to the will of the public. So yes, they are going to get their drone. They’re going to win. But I think we might be able to call this victory pyrrhic. They’re getting their drone but in doing so they’ve exposed who on the city council are their patsies and how little they regard the concerns of those who aren’t. With any justice in the world, this will have a lasting effect. They’ve a new toy in hand, but in order to get it they had to take the mask off.
In my last post I detailed the clumsy lying and inconsistency from the police department up until that point and came away with three main conclusions:
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.
Since I wrote that post, there’s a few more lies to insert into the public record here! At the City Council meeting this week, Police Chief Steven Sargent and Deputy Chief Paul Saucier continued contradicting each other in what resident and frequent public commenter David Slatkin hilariously likened to “an old couple stumbling through the electric slide.”
In the afternoon, at the City Council’s Finance Committee session, Councilor George Russell asked Chief Steven Sargent to elaborate on why his commitment to update policy language was contradicted by Deputy Chief Paul Saucier, who said in no uncertain terms that the department was not going to update the policy.
No, no, no, Sargent said, you’ve got it all wrong. We’re not going to surveil the unhoused, we’re going to identify them.
“What I stated there, and, and I'll continue to say that, I believe that's what the deputy chief was saying there also is that we would not be following anybody around with a drone to see what they're doing or what they're not doing. It would be used for identification reasons only.”
It cannot be stressed enough how smarmy a line of argument this is. No one has ever been under the assumption that the police planned to follow the unhoused around. We have all understood quite clearly that, as outlined in his initial proposal, the cops would be using a drone to identify homeless encampments. That is what people are concerned about. That is the bad thing! You cannot just invent a different bad thing, say you’re not going to do it, and believe that will assuage the concerns of people who don’t want you to do the original bad thing! That is ridiculous. It’s a thorough insult to everyone’s intelligence.
He then went on to say, clear as day, that if someone were to complain to the police department that people were walking in and out of the woods, they would use the drone to investigate the presence of an encampment. This is exactly the use of this technology that people have been begging the police to prohibit with updated policy language. It is also the use that Deputy Chief Paul Saucier has said—on record! numerous times!—is not part of the proposal.
Mere moments after Sargent confirmed that hunting for homeless encampments is exactly how they intend to use the drone, he has the stones to say that the proposed use has been “taken out of context.”
“They would not be surveilled,” Sargent told the council. “They will be identified.”
My brother in Christ, that is surveillance. There is no meaningful distinction. To suggest otherwise is a false argument. You cannot invent a false argument to argue against. We are aware that the proposed use is to find encampments, not to watch what they’re doing at the encampments. This has been clear since the beginning. Since we read the words “An UAS would be of assistance to the Quality of Life Team when searching for homeless encampments.” The words YOU wrote in YOUR report. This is the use we’re concerned with. To suggest otherwise is to willfully misinterpret the concern and then call the fictional concern baseless. That is textbook gaslighting. That is lying.
So naturally, this ruffled a few of the councilors’ feathers, especially Russell and Councilor Sarai Rivera, who both said they want to support the drone but it’s becoming hard to do so with all the discrepancies. While Sargent represented the department at the Finance Committee session in the afternoon, it was Deputy Chief Saucier’s turn to represent the department at the regular city council session later in the evening. Again, as has become the norm, Saucier contradicted Sargent’s statements in a major way.
Before we get to those contradictions, it is very important to point out that Mayor Joe Petty, political maverick that he is, tried to breeze by the drone item without allowing for a discussion. Without even naming the subject matter, he tried to force a roll call on the drone issue and another item as a group motion. Councilor Etel Haxhiaj had to interrupt him to say she wanted to speak on the matter. If she hadn’t, the vote to approve the drone would have sailed through without anyone even saying out loud that it happened. Nice try, Joe!
Haxhiaj opened the discussion by citing three experts on the issue of homelessness who all said that using a drone in this fashion would make the situation worse for everyone. She asked clearly, for what feels like the hundredth time, that the police just put it in writing that they won’t use the drone in conjunction with homeless outreach efforts.
“I feel exasperated at this point, because I really don't know how else to ask,” she said. “If you need me to beg you I will, but please do not use this drone in any shape or form with the Quality of Life Task Force. We have other means to help people. Our people on the ground know where homeless encampments are. We do not need a drone flying over people's heads.”
Then it was Russell’s turn to speak.
“I want to support this, but to be honest with you, the information going back and forth and the lack of the clarity, or the lack of being specific, is making it hard for me as a councilor to support this,” he said.
He made a motion that Acting City Manager Eric Batista write a report for the next meeting with clearer language around the issue. Batista passed the ball to Saucier, who proceeded to read through the department’s draft policy while growing increasingly agitated.
He read from the draft policy’s section on uses.
“Nowhere in these six objectives does it say anything about homelessness,” he said.
The issue, of course, is that it doesn’t. What we want to see is language that specifically prevents the use, and Saucier said very clearly at the last subcommittee meeting that they aren’t going to do that. The language would “handcuff” the department, he said.
When he got to the “search and rescue” section of the policy, as seen above, he read it pretty much verbatim then quickly moved on. He didn’t elaborate on what “other search and rescue missions” might entail and that might be because it would blow up his entire argument. As I’ve written maybe five times now, identifying homeless encampments is considered a “search and rescue” operation in Sargent’s initial report. So not only does this policy do nothing to restrict the use, it explicitly permits it.
Nevertheless, he persisted…
“This isn’t about homelessness at all. It has nothing to do with it. Nothing,” Saucier said.
Taken with Sargent’s claim just hours earlier that they very much intend to use the drone to locate homeless encampments, and also his written report saying so quite clearly, this statement is very hard to believe. It’s what we like to call a direct contradiction. If one of them is telling the truth the other is necessarily lying.
Saucier then read from the “restrictions” section of the policy, where language preventing the identification of encampments could easily go—just one sentence!—but of course no such restriction is there.
“Everybody's harping on the homeless, and again, it has nothing to do with it,” he said.
And then, get this: He said the policy has everything the ACLU asked for despite the fact that a representative of the ACLU called in to the meeting not a half hour prior to say that the policy has five major deficiencies, including language around homeless encampments.
Come on! What the heck! Who could possibly buy this shit?
It was Rivera’s turn and she, like Russell, said she really wants to support the drone purchase but the obvious contradictions are making it hard. She asked Batista if Chief Sargent met with the ACLU like he said he was going to and Batista said “my understanding is I don't think that has happened.”
You just have to laugh at this point, really.
So Rivera held the item another week to give Batista & Co. time to talk to the ACLU and come back with a report clarifying the department’s intention.
Then Petty said that they’re going to vote on the proposal next week regardless of any remaining questions, which he doesn’t have the authority to mandate but ah, nevertheless… He also said he thinks the vote is going to be 11–0 in support, and I guess there’s nothing in the council’s rules against manifesting your desired outcome. He thanked Saucier for “doing a good job explaining exactly what the policy is,” an opinion which betrays he’s either unwilling or incapable of understanding the issue. But hey, either way I suppose what’s more important is shoring up the law enforcement vote for that state senate run.
So next Tuesday, we’re expecting a vote, and the likely outcome is the cops yet again getting what they want. Another toy. Another premise around which to divert public money from the departments that need it to the department that gets everything it asks for. This drone will not be the last drone. One will only serve as justification for two, and so on. Two drones means more positions added to operate the drones, and so on. The WPD surveillance network will grow at the expense of more pressing needs.
Heading into the meeting, we’ll have a new report from the police department to work off of. Posted on Friday afternoon, the report finally gets the cops on record, in writing, that they will not use the drone to locate homeless encampments.
“We are keenly aware of the concerns that have been raised regarding unsheltered individuals. Our department does not intend on using the technology to identify or locate unsheltered individuals. Every use of the UAS would need to be specifically authorized and used to provide an aerial perspective in emergency situations,” writes Chief Sargent.
This is indeed a departure from the chief’s past public statements, and a welcome one to be sure, but is the department’s policy updated to reflect this restriction? No.
The report comes after a meeting with the ACLU and includes several changes to the draft policy.
You’ll notice here nothing directly addressing the issue. In fact, the policy section which allows for it, section 3.2, still lists “search and rescue” as an allowed use, and nothing in the policy reflects a departure from the chief’s initial claim that assisting the Quality of Life Team in locating homeless encampments qualifies as a “search and rescue” operation.
It would have been very easy to include a provision in the “restrictions” section of the policy which reflects the chief’s statement in his report. But they didn’t do that. So that’s unfortunate and begs a certain scrutiny. Taken in context of the rest of the public statements from the police and the city manager it doesn’t inspire a massive amount of confidence.
But we do now have—finally, after so many weeks of asking for it—a written statement from the chief in an official report in which he commits to not using the drone to locate homeless encampments. That is, unless they deem it an emergency, and how hard would that be?
However thin a concession, it’s there. It is a statement to hold any future actions against. We don’t get that without having fought for it. No way, Jose. Public pressure worked and that’s worth noting. The report also includes a commitment to quarterly public reports on drone usage, which is a good thing.
We’re heading into this inevitable new surveillance terrain with more protection than we would have gotten and for that we have to especially thank Councilors Etel Haxhiaj, Thu Nguyen, Khrystian King and, at the last minute, Sarai Rivera. Good for them and everyone else who wrote to the council, testified, and offered public comment.
Now, the work turns toward holding the department to its word and making sure there is crystal clear transparency around how this technology is used and when. We gotta keep an eye on it, for sure. Every inch given to opacity, given the limitless surveillance potential of this technology, is a step down a road I don’t think we want to travel.
So to sum it all up, the cops definitely won here as they always do. They are getting their new toy and a whole new sandbox to fill with future toys. But in achieving this victory, they demonstrated in the clearest way I’ve ever seen that they will lie, misdirect and muddy the waters to avoid public scrutiny. That they won’t by themselves take the concerns of the community seriously and they will wiggle and squirm to avoid any check and balance on their power. So the cops are getting their drone, but at a severe blow to both their credibility and that of the councilors who uncritically shilled for them. Councilor Kate Toomey in particular, who has the most power of any councilor to hold the police department to account given her role as the chairwoman of the public safety subcommittee, proved she’s entirely uninterested in grappling with the concerns of the public.
At the last subcommittee meeting, Toomey said this about concerns over drone surveillance of the unhoused:
“Some people were very upset over something that actually wasn’t being said.”
Meanwhile Chief Sargent was saying it very clearly! In public and in writing! And it wasn’t until this last report, only written under pressure from other councilors, that he said anything different on the matter.
Perhaps for more than anyone, this drone acquisition represents a pyrrhic victory for Toomey. She got the cops what they want, but she proved she’s entirely unfit for the job of overseeing the department.
And how is she still put in that position, year after year?
Well that’s a question for Joe Petty. He and he alone assigns the committees. So a pyrrhic victory for him as well, or at the very least a decent question to ask him on the campaign trail.
I think it would be really cool if there are any tech savvy people out there to try to figure out how to set up an automatic ticker for police drone deployments? Even just a Twitter bot? I have no idea how to do that but if you have an inkling hit me up!
Also as always if you liked this post please consider throwing some cash my way or sharing it to someone else who might :-)
And let’s see what else is going on in Worce—oh shit.
That sucks! She could actually win! Welp, time to prepare the Binienda dossier…
While we’ve been discussing the fourth amendment as it relates to drones in Worcester, the highest court of the land just ruled that the fourth amendment doesn’t exist for Customs and Border Patrol you live within 100 miles of the border.
And while compelling, this map isn’t quite accurate. International airports are also considered ports of entry and those also have a 100 mile ring around them. So put a ring around Denver, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Nashville, Louisville etc. Oh, and then this from a Reuters story on the matter…
The court’s ruling grants actual absolute immunity to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. That’s nearly 20,000 officers whose work sometimes involves detaining migrant children and flying drones over protests to help with “situational awareness.” Border patrol agents have more power than local police in many contexts, and they engage in the full range of ordinary law enforcement activity -- often far away from the border.
Gotta be honest I’m not feeling that small tinge of optimism I left you with in the first part of this post anymore.
But that’s an awfully sour note to end. So to cheer us up, let’s watch the below video which for legal reasons is just a neat video I am sharing because I think it’s neat and not because I would like anyone in Worcester to learn how to do this.
Also this new Dall-E AI generator going around is a lot of fun. Here’s what I got when I ran “drone crashing into police station” lol
And what’s more! Councilor Thu Nguyen is having a Pride celebration at the new Vietnamese bar/restaurant off Park called Mint! I’ve been there before, it rules. The party takes place June 24 , 7-9 p.m. More here.
Alas I will be out of the country then, and more on this in a few days, but here’s where I’m going to be the next couple weeks: Copenhagen, Denmark; Hamburg, Wiesbaden, Hanover, Kassel Germany; Amsterdam; Liege, Belgium; Clisson, France.
Any and all leads on any of these places are welcome! Drop me a line!
Ok more soon! The two year anniversary of this newsletter is next Sunday!! Ahh!!!