A Pleasant Surprise

The City Manager calls for cops out of schools

Cops out of schools. 

Cops out of schools!

Need I repeat: Cops out of schools!!

That is the biggest, and most surprising, takeaway from the city manager’s long-awaited package of police reforms and other policy changes oriented toward racial justice. 

In a memo handed to the City Council Friday, City Manager Ed Augustus Jr. detailed about a dozen or so new policy ideas, one of them being that he wants to see the school district get rid of school resource officers by the end of the year and put a new public safety plan in place. 

Woah! Didn’t see that coming!

Augustus is also recommending a ban on facial recognition technology, a full community review of all other new surveillance technology, a new process in which social workers are deployed to mental health incidents, a public database of police brutality complaints, and a new “division of investigations” for looking into racist incidents that occur across the whole of city government including police. 

This, all and all, is not freakin bad. And by Worcester standards it is incredible. I’ve written before that you shouldn’t expect much from Augustus’ package of reforms and I really meant it. This was a lot more than I was expecting.

Cops out of schools would be probably the biggest step ever the city has taken towards acknowledging and remedying deep racial biases and inequities. Academic research has shown time and again that school resource officers not only make for a more hostile school environment, they get kids locked in the oppressive loop of the criminal justice system before they even get a crack at adulthood. 

Last year I wrote extensively about school resource officers and the fact they’re not even popular with Worcester teachers despite baseless assertions from the school administration and the head of the Worcester teachers union who is too cozy with the school administration for my liking. From that piece:

In Worcester, we have a huge problem with disparities in discipline rates between white students and students of color. We also have a lot of school resource officers. Hm. We have a superintendent and an administration in general that wants more of them. Last year Binienda pushed for a full time officer at Claremont Academy. “Personally, I think it’s a good idea,” Binienda is quoted in the Telegram saying. “There’s quite a lot of crime going on (in that neighborhood).”

Jesus. 

But we shouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves. All of these policy proposals are only recommendations to the City Council. The Council is going to discuss this package of reforms on Tuesday night, and we’ll get a first glimpse then of what is and isn’t going to make the cut. How this reform package ends up looking after the Council gets its grimy little hands on it remains to be seen. 

Let’s play a little inside baseball. In general, the council and the mayor are incredibly deferential to the city manager. What he says typically goes, and I’m sure a lot of the recommendations will pass easily. School resource officers however, have been a political sticking point for years. The school administration and the townie coalition that Superintendent Maureen Binienda commands… they love the school cops. They don’t want them gone. 

Is Augustus putting this up knowing there’s going to be a fight, or did that fight already happen in the closed-door way these things tend to happen in Worcester? He doesn’t specifically say who he worked with to develop these recommendations in the memo he sent to city council, but you have to imagine the police chief was one of those people. 

I don’t see a Kate Toomey or a Donna Colorio or a Moe Bergman or a Candy Mero-Carlson going quietly along with this. 

I would hope, in this instance, that this proposal was hashed out quietly and Augustus used his leverage in Democratic Party politics to make sure this goes through without a big stink. Hopefully that’s what made this take so long. He promised this package in November and it is now February.

If, instead, he’s tossing it in front of the Council to let them hang themselves on whatever decision they make while he looks like he was Trying To Do Something, I’m not optimistic at all that this will actually pass. The Council will reliably capitulate to the police, the police unions, and the townie coalition that surrounds them every time. And that townie coalition has a severe case of what we might call copnitive dissonance. 

Let’s take a look at how they’re handling the news, shall we? Take a trip on the old internet machine and head over to the police union Facebook group which is still, remarkably, public. 

Oh look at that, that first post is the head of one of the Worcester police unions, Richard Cipro, having a completely normal one. 

This is the third time I’ve seen Cipro threaten “union action” against attempts to address racial inequity and the press coverage of those attempts, something I’ll get into a little later. Comments on this post and another are predictably brain dead and a little taste of the dialogue to come as the City Council takes this proposal up. 

“Clearly a man that embraces criminal and hates children,” wrote one commenter. 

“There will be drastic increase in Gang Violence in the City as a direct result of this ill conceived policy,” wrote another. 

Councilors Toomey and Colorio are both regular commenters on this page so look out for them reflecting any of this Heady Discourse. And when they start talking this way, other of our more on-the-fence types might start getting ideas. 

What I’m saying is that if this is not already a set and locked deal, we need a really strong showing of support to make sure this goes through. 

I’d say both scenarios—August having already secured the support for this or Augustus letting the Council hang themselves—are equally likely. I don’t have a good read on which it is. We’ll start to know when the Council gets to talking on Tuesday night. 

So enough about that for now, and let’s get back to this thing about the head of the police union constantly threatening union action against the city on Facebook.   

“It is time for both Unions direct action in response to this needless but constant defamation of our good name,” wrote Richard Cipro, head of one of the Worcester police unions, in a recent Facebook post. “When does the Ball Park Open? asking for 451 friends!”

And what is the “constant defamation of our good name” of which he speaks? A Telegram article in which community groups simply say they’d like to see the police department tackle systemic racism in any way—hell, even just acknowledge it. In the article, Defund WPD, the Worcester branch of the NAACP, Black Families Together, Showing Up For Racial Justice, and the Worcester Board of Health are on record demanding change and voicing frustration that none has yet come. 

Now, after the most gently nudging story in which community groups rightly point out the police department nor the city administration has come forward with any sort of reform package, the cops are having a full-on meltdown. 

Cipro, in that quote up there, appears to be calling for a… boycott of the ballpark? 

This after 15 cops went on a de facto strike because one officer was lightly disciplined for slapping a man in the throes of a mental breakdown repeatedly; slapping him while he was strapped into a stretcher, mind you. Called a “blue flu,” it came out today that city officials are investigating this passive-aggressive union action. City Manager Ed Augustus, Jr. promised in a Telegram article to investigate and take “appropriate action” should they find any wrongdoing, a statement that does not inspire confidence there will be any action at all, quite frankly. 

And this after the Telegram posted an investigation that found there have been at least six investigations into racist actions in the police department and over the past decade, and at least one that Sargent would have overseen as chief or deputy chief. The racist action investigated in that instance was a cop texting another cop that some kids she tried to arrest while they were doing yard work for Rec Worcester were “f**king n*****s.” But Chief Sargent has nevertheless maintained in all public comments since June that he’s never seen an instance of racism in his department.

And this after Worcester cops in riot gear brutalized Black Lives Matter protesters, force marching them down Main Street, throwing them to the ground, hitting them, breaking their phones, calling them names, and firing foam tipped bullets and pepperball rounds at them. New video footage published in The Appeal shows the cops acting like a gang of thugs on that June 1 incident. The videos show cops throwing people to the ground and cussing them out and acting like thugs while people screamed and there were very few people even there. Some were just walking home and some were journalists. Didn’t matter. 

This passage in particular is just… WOOF. 

Veronica Pasquantonio, was attacked around 1:15 a.m. outside Maria’s Kitchen restaurant also on Main Street—some five blocks from where Verchin, Drapeau, and Crum were arrested. Pasquantonio said she and her boyfriend, Chris Euga, were targeted by a group of police after she objected to officers shoving other demonstrators. Pasquantonio described the treatment she received as in line with what she saw during the five years she lived in Worcester before moving to Westport, in the southeastern corner of Massachusetts. Her experience living in Worcester was why she returned to the city for the demonstration, she said. 

After an officer pushed one young Black man, Pasquantonio said she told him to “keep his hands to himself” because the group was complying. 

“He ran at me, called me a stupid bitch, punched me in the face and pushed me in the doorway of Maria’s Kitchen while two other cops were punching me in the ribs,” Pasquantonio said. “One was hitting me in the knee with batons until they could get me out of that corner. I was screaming because I was being assaulted and my boyfriend turned around and immediately was punched in the face.” 

Police fell upon the pair, and the end of the confrontation is shown on video.

“They got me down on the ground,” said Pasquantonio. “I saw three sets of feet in front of me and I had one on my back. I could feel his knee on my spine and they were choking me with my sweatshirt.”

And this after the cops lied about a savage beating of a man outside the Beer Garden in a brawl the cops almost certainly instigated. 

And this after the Worcester Police Department and the city administration has fought tooth and nail to keep internal disciplinary records from the Telegram in a lawsuit that has gone on for some two years. The records include officers involved in active civil rights cases and almost certainly detail at least a few good racist actions. 

And this after a Ghanaian man on Tuesday sued the Worcester Police Department for an incident in 2018 in which he said he was dragged from his car and beaten for attempting to film an arrest. He himself was arrested and charged with a host of the charges cops can slap on anyone they feel like, including the all-too-common “disturbing the peace.”  One officer apparently said to him “is this how you fucking monkeys treat your police officers?” Because of the arrest he lost his job with Uber. The suit is the fourth filed against Worcester police officers in the past 13 months, per The Patch. Over the past decade, Worcester has paid out some $4 million in lawsuits related to police misconduct. For perspective, the DPW estimated it would have cost $5 million to save Hillside Beach, if you remember that post from last week

None of this is a consideration for the Worcester cops themselves. For them, any action to hold them to account in any way is seen as an attack. They are completely immune from criticism. They inoculate themselves against any measure of public accountability via a firewall of townie sympathy and flag waving and the particularly American brand of patriotism that amounts in the abstract to rootin’ and tootin’ for authoritarianism. Your flag decal might not get you into heaven anymore but it’ll get you pretty far in Worcester. 

This Cipro guy has continued in recent days to double down on vague threats of police union action against Polar Park, even if it’s just tough-guy-on-Facebook bull. He posted this the other day. 

And he’s doing this while actively negotiating a new contract with the city. For weeks, the city and the unions representing Worcester police officers have been in private contract talks, and all the while a union president has been in full freak-out mode on Facebook, openly talking about a police union strike because the city is hesitant to give them a new toy in the Shotspotter Connect program and community groups are upset that the police and the city have done diddly-squat on the issue of racial justice in the wake of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. 

How are you supposed to reason with these people? How are you supposed to expect change within an institution that goes on a full wildcat strike when one officer is lightly disciplined for doing something barbaric? How are you supposed to expect the leaders of an institution that reacts this strongly to something so trivial to make any sort of top-down reforms at all? You just can’t. This is the core of the abolitionist argument behind the Defund movement nationally. The institution of American policing is impossible to reform. Instead, it must be slowly and responsibly dismantled while replaced by something more just and equitable. 

I was talking with someone today about just why Police Chief Steven Sargent won’t even acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in his department—why he so staunchly denies it despite the obvious political hit he’s taking by doing so. I came to the conclusion, given Cipro’s hysteric posting and the “blue flu,” that he may well lose control of his department if he does the right thing and publicly acknowledges the existence of systemic racism. There is at least a faction—if not a good part of the department—that would take that as a direct attack, and they would likely proceed accordingly. Already in Worcester the general political situation is such that the city manager can continue to balk on a package of reforms (he’s now saying one’s coming next week, don’t hold your breath though) and it’s mostly fine. Pressure from the council for action is limited, and there are quite a few councilors who would certainly prefer to see no action at all. So if it’s that bad in the city at large, you can imagine how bad it is in the department itself. The person I was talking to has hung out with police officers, he’s been party to the social life that surrounds Worcester cops, and he agreed. There are some bad dudes in that department, he said, and they wouldn’t take kindly to any new programs aimed at fixing obvious problems. To them, they’re not problems at all. 

This is what I mean when I say “copnitive dissonance.” There has been week after week of bad press for the Worcester cops. It has amounted to nothing besides the cops half-assedly organizing a strike of a ballpark over Facebook. So many people in the community rightly feel the cops are an unaccountable gang of thugs that do not work for you but actively against you. Their behavior in the face of those demanding they do better is telling. 

We’re not in it together. 

~/~

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Rare back-to-back posts this week but I think both are solid topics. Let me know if I’m clogging the feed too much, y’all.