The Worcester City Council did one good thing last night

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After literally five hours dedicated almost entirely to the subject, the Worcester City Council voted last night in a 6–5 decision to say buh-bye to cops in schools. Get ‘em on out of there. 

Now, City Manager Ed Augustus Jr. is mandated to put together a new safety plan and pull the cops by the end of the calendar year. The school resource officers will be reassigned to other jobs within the police department. 

The plan is part of a package of eleven police reforms proposed in light of Black Lives Matter and there are a lot of things lacking in the package and pulling cops out of schools is sort of like the bare minimum of what you should expect a city government to do and it took the city manager the better part of the year to come forward with it but hey! Cops out of schools! We did it!

When you expect nothing good to happen, the one good thing feels pretty damn good. 

The vote was one of the most razor-thin splits I’ve seen in my time watching the council, and the discussion was long and contentious. The usual suspects voted against: Kate Toomey and Donna Colorio and Moe Bergman of course, we knew that going in, as well as Candy Mero-Carlson and Gary Rosen. To my mind, Matt Wally was the real swing vote. While he said he had some problems with the proposal and doesn’t so much mind the idea of cops in schools, he said he ultimately decided to put his trust behind the manager’s proposal. Khrystian King and Sarai Rivera have been on the issue for years and years and years and they must be feeling good right now. Sean Rose and George Russell and Joe Petty deserve credit for going up against the old townie guard who absolutely hated this idea, and they made their decision knowing they’re bound to lose support. In Worcester, the cops are a political third rail and the townies are going to do everything they can to ensure consequences.  

After the council vote, at about 11:30 p.m., I decided to meet my friends at Nick’s (go to Nick’s! It rules!) and I whipped open the door and I shouted COPS OUT OF SCHOOOOOLS and I slammed a Guinness and a shot of Jameson and they all went woah that’s crazy, Worcester actually did something good, and I went I know right it’s crazy.

There have been a lot of people working on this for a long, long time. A sustained campaign of pressure for the better part of a year, of which I humbly consider this newsletter a part, got us to this point. The manager’s package of reforms is nowhere close to acceptable and the work must continue. But I’ll get into all that later. For now, I just want to take a little clickity-clackity victory lap on my keyboard because last night a nascent left-wing movement in this city won a battle. After so much losing, so much disrespect and disregard from the leaders for months, we finally got somewhere, and we should be very, very happy about that. 

Everyone involved in organizations like Black Families Together, Defund WPD, Racism Free WPS, the local NAACP chapter, Showing Up For Racial Justice, and others have been putting in the hours for months, relentlessly pressuring and lobbying the City Council, waiting in line forever to lodge public comments at meetings, putting out press releases, posting on social media, holding forums and town halls, meeting with the city manager and other leaders, and it worked. We held the manager’s feet to the fire and the council’s feet to the fire with no results and no hope of any results coming down the tube for such a long time, and finally, we got somewhere.

I’m doing a little click click click finger dance on my keyboard and I just want to start chanting One Good Thing!! One Good Thing!!!!! 

But enough gloating. In no uncertain terms, we have to watch these chumps. Over the months ahead there are going to be endless meetings on the subject and we have no idea what this new safety plan is going to look like. 

You can reliably trust a Democrat to take a good idea and neuter it with compromises and wonkery and concessions to right-wingers who would never do the same for them. What I can possibly see happening is floating a program of part-time school resource officers or, even worse, private security details filling the hole. What should happen is the city takes the $1.2 million it was spending on the school resource officers and invests that into mental health workers and social workers. 

Khrystian King last night made the great point that each SRO makes about $120,000 a year and you can easily get two social workers for that kinda money. We need to make sure a reinvestment in the sort of professionals that are there to actually help kids with their problems are part of this new safety plan and we don’t replace a draconian school safety policy with a different one.

What is technically going to happen now is the manager will put together a series of plans, budget allocations and ordinances on each of the eleven policy proposals he made. Each of the proposals will also go to a City Council subcommittee for further review. The proposal for cops out of schools is going to the education subcommittee—shortly before the vote, King saved it from Public Safety, where the mayor was initially going to put it. Public Safety is chaired by Kate Toomey and she is historically resistant to move on anything that holds the police to account. Instead, it’s going to the Standing Committee on Education which, importantly, can call joint meetings of the School Committee and the City Council. Bergman chairs the education subcommittee, which isn’t a whole lot better than Toomey honestly but he is outnumbered 2–1 by supporters of the proposal. King and George Russell are the other two members of the subcommittee. 

There are going to be a lot of people gunning for this proposal to fail. If you take a look at our favorite Facebook page, the one for the police union that is still, amazingly, public, you can see the sort of townie shitstorm that’s coming.

As I wrote about in my last post on the subject, Richard Cipro, head of one of the police unions representing Worcester officers, has at least three times threatened a strike on that page in reaction to calls for police reform and racial justice.

“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.

Also I just want to point out for the record that last night Rivera said the police union page is proof enough in and of itself that there is racism in the Worcester Police Department. That’s where I got the idea for the header image of this post. 

That page is just one big Punisher logo if you ask me but what do you expect? We do live in a city where townies went and painted a reactionary, pro-police logo outside of the station after the Black Lives Matter mural went up outside the DCU Center. 

So this is not something we can just forget about, is what I’m saying. We need to keep the pressure up to make sure they actually follow through. 

And I should now get into the eight other aspects of this police reform package and also what’s notably missing. 

Number one is a full racial equity audit. The audit will review policies and procedures and look for instances of systemic racism which can be fixed. As part of this, Police Chief Steven Sargent will also establish an equity advisory council. A lot of callers were critical of that aspect last night. The chief will appoint his own equity advisory council from members of the community. One caller rightfully pointed out that the guy who can’t even acknowledge that racism exists in his department is not going to pick a very good equity council. A lot of callers also pointed out that this is no substitute for a real citizen advisory council with subpoena power. A citizen advisory council was notably absent from the manager’s package of reforms. Groups like Black Families Together, Showing Up For Racial Justice and the NAACP called for one but the manager decided he didn’t want to go there. 

The manager will create a “division of investigations,” which will handle complaints of racial bias across all of city government, which is a fine idea, but I’m really not holding out hope this will have any teeth. It is interesting, though, and it’s worth watching out for. 

The manager will create an ordinance that bans facial recognition technology which is a no brainer. At the meeting last night, Kate Toomey tried to get the language changed so that the city will ban facial recognition technology until the technology gets good enough that it is no longer racist. When the manager responded to her, he looked very tired. Like a father telling his son for the fifth time that day that no, he will not buy him the butterfly knife at the gas station. 

In general, Toomey was thoroughly incoherent and I understand why she has the support she has in an academic way but it still makes no sense to me. 

The manager is recommending an ordinance that would require all surveillance technologies proposed in the future to go through a public review, which is great considering he did precisely the opposite with ShotSpotter Connect, a predictive policing artificial intelligence system that the cops tried to sneak by us. But more on that later.

The manager is going to create a process by which social workers are deployed with cops to mental health incidents and this is just slam-dunk good policy. One day we will just be deploying the social workers tho :-)

There’s going to be a paid cadet program available to people of color who want to be cops which is… fine. I’m not of the mind that a more diverse police department is a less racist police department, but that’s a whole can of worms to get into right now. 

The city manager’s cabinet members will also be part of an “equity cabinet”

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ok

And there will be a public dashboard for police brutality complaints, which, if there’s one of these policy proposals that’s going to fall through, it's definitely going to be this one. The police department is famously resistant to transparency and the city is paying legal fees out the wazoo because of it. So we’ll see about that. 

All of these together with cops out of schools comprise a package of police reform proposals that are sort of the baseline of what we should expect a city to do. They are at the same time some of the most historically progressive police reforms we’ve seen in Worcester in decades. Probably haven’t seen something this significant since Worcester literally defunded the police in the 1970s by employing 41 unarmed service aides. Fascinating story honestly and I’d suggest reading up on it here.

We should continue to push for more transparency and certainly continue to push for a real citizen advisory council, but for now it’s worth celebrating that we’ve made any progress at all, because moments like this in this city are hard to come by. 

This is also surely going to become a campaign issue, if not THE campaign issue, of the upcoming municipal elections in November. The roster of incumbents is neatly split on the issue, and this will remain a story for months as the plan to actually remove the SROs develops. Already, last night, we saw a District 2 showdown, with Candy Mero-Carlson voting against the proposal and a challenger, Johanna Hampton-Dance, called in to indicate her support. 

Here’s her fundraising page, by the way. 


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In other news the cops already signed the fucking contract. 

Some stunning reporting by Neal McNamara in The Patch this week shows us that in December, the cops signed a contract with ShotSpotter to adopt an artificial intelligence software that purports to predict crime and assign police dispatches accordingly. It’s called ShotSpotter Connect and I’ve written about it… a lot.

It wasn’t until January that even the proposal of adopting this became public. On the City Council’s Jan. 19 agenda, there were two items, one detailing the program and one requesting a transfer of money from the city manager’s contingency fund to pay for it. A fund that is ostensibly there for emergency expenditures, mind you. At the time of this meeting the program became controversial. Many people, myself included, pointed out that predictive policing programs such as this not only reinforce racial and class bias in policing but streamline it. Hundreds of people by now have spoken out against the program at various government and community meetings, but that doesn’t matter, because the cops already went and signed the goddamn contract. 

Here’s the really important bit from McNamara’s reporting

The contract between the city and ShotSpotter for the expansion and Connect was signed on Dec. 31, according to City Solicitor Michael Traynor. The agreement was sent to City Council because it required a budget transfer.

"The item was before the City Council to transfer the funds from one account to another, and for transparency," Traynor said in an email Monday. "The City Manager wanted the Councilors to be informed that the program was expanding."

Even with a signed agreement to adopt Connect, Traynor said the contract could be amended to exclude Connect if Councilors reject the idea.

Two important points here. First, Traynor said the item was sent to the Council for the budget transfer, which is true, and also for transparency, which is certifiably not true. Nowhere in the presentation did Augustus or anyone outline that the contract had already been signed, that this was a done deal and if the council didn’t like it, they would have to vote to amend the contract. That is markedly different than voting on whether or not to adopt it. They did not make this distinction clear. Public officials did not make the distinction clear at any of the public meetings on the subject. This one small fact—that the cops had already entered into a legal agreement to adopt this technology—was omitted time and time again.  

This is going to be on the council agenda next week and it would be good if we could make as much a stink about that as we did this week :-)

Also the nurses at Saint Vincent are inching closer and closer to going on a good old-fashioned strike on March 8 and all I have to say about that is let’s gooooooooooooooo. More on that later, as the news develops. 

That’s all baby bye bye bye