Are we surprised?

Augustus says no to civilian review board 

If you’ll remember a few months ago the City Manager rolled out his package of 18 or so police reforms and one of them was removing cops from schools and we all went whoa, wait, he’s doing one good thing when it comes to the cops? Cool!!

Well, turns out it was just that one good thing. City Manager Ed Augustus, Jr. is back to siding with the local police unions every chance he gets while telling every organization in the city that represents the interest of marginalized people to kick rocks. Gotta keep those boys in blue happy!

Augustus announced he will not pursue a civilian review board for the Worcester Police Department this week. The decision comes after about 20 local groups sent a letter urging him to do so and after Defund WPD released a cache of data showing that the Worcester Police Department is the subject of an inordinate amount of costly and galling police brutality judgements. A civilian review board, the groups argue, would help fix the very real problem of cops hiding the atrocities they commit on residents. Cops don’t rat on cops. There’s an internal investigation process but that process is conducted by cops who don’t rat on cops. We only hear about the horrors the cops commit if they’re caught on camera or if there’s a successful judgement. A civilian review board would go a long way toward providing the sort of real oversight police departments need for public accountability. A civilian review board with the power to subpoena and review internal records would be even better. Here’s how the groups put it:  

“Through the years, and over the past six months specifically,we have watched and suffered with the City’s inability to respond to complaints from diverse community groups, faith leaders, and even elected officials struggling to find resolution to incidents of systemic racism and police excessive force.

But the local police unions think a review board is a bad idea—wonder why!—so Augustus is not going to do it. Last week, the heads of the local police unions said in a statement they don’t want a civilian review board because they do a good enough job reviewing themselves. Civilians, they argue, do not have the expertise needed to properly hold police to account. 

“Every other profession in the commonwealth is subject to oversight by professional boards made up of people with experience and expertise in that particular field so that informed oversight can be achieved,” (officers union president Daniel)Gilbert wrote, adding he believes civilian review boards often prove divisive.

The main difference here which the cops are glossing over is that lawyers and dentists are not issued weapons by the state, nor are they sanctioned to use them. There have been lawyers and dentists who have shot people, I’m sure, but there are no lawyers or dentists who have been paid to shoot people. Lawyers and dentists do not shoot, Tase or brutalize people as a capacity of their profession. Lawyers and dentists do not as a rule celebrate other lawyers or dentists taking someone’s life. Excuse me for thinking that civilian review of an institution designed to inflict violence on civilians is a little different than civilian review of an institution designed to fill cavities. 

Over the past 10 years, the Worcester Police Department has been the subject of 42 lawsuits alleging assault, excessive force, violations of constitutional rights, making false statements, making false charges and racial discrimination. The city has paid $4 million to settle those lawsuits, and that money does not come from the police department budget, it comes from the legal budget, which comes from the taxes the city collects. On the other hand, the police get local, state, and federal funding. Maybe the police department would have to buckle down and buy a few less tear gas canisters and take a few less trips to Israel if they had to pay for their own bad behavior. But they don’t. We do. We pay the oppressor to do the oppressing and we pay double when they’re too rough about it. 

The 42 lawsuits resulting in $4 million in settlements is way, way higher than other cities Worcester’s size. In fact, it’s higher than New Orleans paid in the same decade. Worcester has a population of 185,000. New Orleans has a population of 391,000. It’s higher than what Cincinnati (301,000) paid.  It’s higher than what Orlando (281,000) paid. This is all research fought for and compiled by Defund WPD, by the way. They’re still doing absolute yeoman’s work when it comes to holding the police to account and I don’t think this city has seen anything like it for a very long time. Defund WPD is calling for the $4 million the city has paid out to be taken from the police department budget and reinvested back into the community. 

In response to community frustration that WPD officials continually refuse to acknowledge—and therefore refuse to address—systemic racism within the Worcester Police Department, Defund WPD is releasing information related to 42 lawsuits settled, lost, and filed against the WPD since 2010. Among the files, obtained via records request, are payment information from 27 lawsuits between 2010 and 2020 that have cost Worcester taxpayers $4 million as well as basic details about 15 pending lawsuits. The plaintiffs represent Worcester’s Black, Latinx, Asian, and LGBTQ+ populations in at least 27 of these 42 lawsuits. 

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But Augustus earlier this week went on the radio and when Hank Stoltz asked him about a civilian review board, he said instead talked about the package of reforms the council already passed. “I think that is going to be enough for us to work on to make some of the changes that people in the community have asked for,” he said. 

That’s a weird thing to say when you are specifically not doing what people in the community asked you for in writing. He also goes on to say he doesn’t feel civilian review boards are the “end-all, be-all” when it comes to police reform. That’s an insulting thing to say to the people who want a civilian review board. Do you really think anyone in Black Families Together or Defund WPD or the local NAACP chapter think that once the city implements a civilian review board, the cops will suddenly become less racist and violent? Augustus tries to say that Boston and Springfield have implemented civilian review boards and it hasn’t yielded any results yet. Well at least they’re fucking trying dude. It’s one thing to wave away the demands of organizations representing people of color, it’s another thing entirely to condescend to them by painting their request out to be an ill-advised panacea. No one thinks a civilian review board by itself is going to solve the myriad problems with the police department, but it’s a whole lot better than what we’re doing now. 

Here’s the audio if you want to hear for yourself. Starts about 6 minutes in. 

So now I want to circle back to the time we celebrated the cops getting kicked out of schools because I think it is way, way overgenerous to paint Augustus’ decision here as one born of good intentions. I was too busy taking a victory lap the first time I wrote about that, but there was one very, very interesting little tidbit from Augustus that revealed the true intention behind his decision. 

At that meeting back in March Augustus said the police chief supports the removal of school resource officers because the new statewide police reform law bars school resource officers and school personnel from disclosing student record information to the police department.

“The state passed a law that changed what school resource officers can do. That’s one big thing that’s changed since 2015,” Augustus said in response to a bad faith question from Councilor Moe Bergman. He asked what’s changed since 2015 when they put cops in schools. “If a school resource officer is told about some students’ involvement in gang activity or whatever, that officer is not able to communicate that to anyone else in the police department. That’s one of the reasons Chief Sargent supports removing the police officers from the Worcester Public Schools, because the nature of what they can do is very much different than when we deployed them in 2015.” 

Translation: cops in schools can no longer snitch on kids thereby getting them involved in the criminal justice system before they even have a chance. Obviously it’s a good thing that school resource officers are no longer allowed to do this. Discipline and intervention for wayward students is much better handled by teachers and administrators and social workers than it is by cops. But for Augustus and Sargent, it’s a hindrance that makes the position no longer worth it. Worth noting that those positions were not eliminated but rather folded back into other divisions within the police department. Had the state law not changed to make the resource officers less effective in the eyes of the city administration, it’s likely Augustus would never have proposed eliminating them. So what then are we to make of all the lip service paid to school resource officers making schools safer and the great relationship they have with the kids? As soon as the school resource officers could no longer criminalize children, the administration saw the value of the position diminish to the point it was no longer necessary. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still great we’re getting the cops out of schools, but let’s be clear-eyed about why. Augustus did not make that decision because he believed it was the right decision, he made it because the State Legislature forced his hand. It will likely take similar action from the state for him to ever consider a civilian review board. It doesn’t appear that calls from the community mattered very much to his administration in either instance.

It’s one thing to do the bare minimum, it’s another thing entirely to dress the bare minimum up as substantive policy. He could at least have the courtesy to be honest with us. 

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