Oh, that’s not racism, Chief?

A court case details a whole lot of racism in the Worcester Police Department

Got a joke for ya.

What do a race discrimination allegation, a police officer in a KKK hood, an n-word dropped on the police radio, and anonymous, slur-filled notes taped to a cop’s locker have in common?

They’re all detailed in a 2013 lawsuit filed by Worcester police officers against the Worcester Police Department!

Get it? The punchline is that the department is riddled with systemic and overt racism the way that every institution—especially police departments, turns out—are all across the country. It’s an undeniable fact. That is, for everyone except Steve Sargent, Worcester’s police chief, who cannot help but deny the existence of systemic racism in his department on camera and on record every single chance he gets. 

This is what he told the Board of Health back in August:

“I can say through my entire career that I have not personally witnessed acts of racism by the Worcester Police Department.”

This is what he told the Human Rights Commission a few weeks later:

“In my 35 years I have not observed racism in the department. We would not allow it.”

It’s an absurd and harmful claim and I’ve roasted him for it before, but on a good tip I schlepped down to the Worcester Courthouse to dig up the lawsuit documents, and wowie zowie does it paint an awful portrait of the goings on inside that station. If Steve Sargent has really never seen an instance of racism in his department, he bought his glasses at the toilet store.

So let’s take a trip back to 2013, when officers Ken Davenport, Armando Garcia, Charles Brace and James Guittar, all people of color, sued then Police Chief Gary Gemme, then City Manager Michael O’Brien, and the City of Worcester in general on counts of discriminatory treatment. Basically what happened is these guys were in line for promotions and instead of giving them the promotions Gemme decided not to promote anyone until after their eligibility expired, per the documents. The chief tried to say there were budget concerns and that was why, but according to the lawsuit the plaintiffs in the case met with Mayor Joe Petty and Mike O’Brien and some members of the City Council and they were all like yeah, there’s room in the budget for promotions. But Gemme let the list with the officers of color expire, then three weeks after the list expired, he started the process of promoting officers from a list that did not include the candidates of color. I could get into the whole thing about the civil service exam and how the promotion list works but I think that’s boring and you get the idea. Instead of promoting Black and Hispanic officers to management positions the chief decided to wait until he didn’t have to. 

That’s not racism, Steve? You weren’t chief, but you were on the force. That didn’t qualify as an “act of racism” which you’ve never seen in all your 35 years on the force?

This is how the officers’ lawyers put it in a civil action filed in Worcester Superior Court: 

“Their (civil service exam) scores placed them high on the resulting promotion lists and virtually guaranteed them consideration for a promotion, since the lists were effective for two years. The City of Worcester did not want to promote any minorities, however—the Police Department only has four minority superior officers out of eighty-nine in all, and the city wanted to keep it that way. As a result, Police Chief Gary Gemme took the unprecedented step of not recommending a single promotion during the effective two-year period of the lists, and then recommending several promotions, which City Manager Michael O’Brien approved, within a few weeks of the lists expiring and the new lists being created. This is blatant discrimination based on race and national origin, and requires the court’s intervention.”

It was the first time the department had gone two years without promoting anyone in at least 25 years, according to the lawsuit, and hmmmm, wonder why.

The city motioned to dismiss the case and the argument is just as crass and callous as you’d expect—since the department didn’t promote anyone then everyone was treated equally. 

“(I)t cannot be disputed, and as the Plaintiffs themselves have stated, all employees have been treated equally during the last two-plus years,” city lawyers wrote in their motion.

Whoosh—that’s the sound of the point flying right over your head there, buddy. 

Because of the lawsuit, they eventually promoted Davenport to lieutenant, and the local media at the time made much fanfare over this historic moment – the department’s first Black lieutenant in over 20 years. Wow, such progress! 

This is how Scott Croteau, then of the Telegram and now working for MassLive, put it in a write-up of the event:  

For Police Chief Gary J. Gemme, the promotion and addition of minority officers to the police force has been a priority for almost a decade. There was one minority sergeant when he started as chief in 2004. After the Tuesday promotions there will be a total of five minority supervisors, one lieutenant and four sergeants.

“This is another step forward—not a giant step forward,” Chief Gemme said. “I know going forward you are going to see more and more minority candidates and minority supervisors.”

When I dug this story up I was sort of stunned by how he chose to frame this. He just gave the chief that line—“the promotion and addition of minority officers to the police force has been a priority for almost a decade.” He didn’t even include the customary “Gemme said” attribution which allows journalists to blast out whatever baloney public officials say while absolving themselves of any culpability should the statement turn out to be a bald-faced lie like this one.  

This is indicative of the problem with local press in general. They generally consider themselves to be on the cops’ side; deputized bards there to dutifully report out all of the crime the police the police righteously save us from and all the New Initiatives In Place to streamline and improve the efficiency of the department, thus justifying all the new money they get, and of course a few feel good stories about cops playing basketball with ~inner-city kids~ or some cheap crap like that along the way. 

It takes a whole lot of effort to get critical reporting of police into local papers and it has to be worded very carefully and it has to be absolutely air-tight and it has to give the cops’ perspective equal time because, you know, we don’t want to piss those guys off. It takes a lot of time, and there aren’t enough local journalists and the ones that are left and lucky enough to have jobs rarely have the time to take that sort of project on.

Now that I’m independent I can talk about the cops however I want, though, and that is a very liberating thing. I’d ask that you consider subscribing for a few bucks a month so I can continue to write about the cops here in Worcester in the way I feel they deserve to be written about. 

While the lawsuit is in and of itself interesting and indicative of the problem, there’s a very juicy segment detailing past instances of discrimination and racism within the department, and boy oh boy is there a lot there. I’m just going to leave this here with a content warning for extremely offensive and inexcusable racial slurs.  

The officer who entered the police station in full uniform wearing a KKK hat in 1993? Sargent was on the force. 

When the Black officer was called the n-word over the police radio? Sargent was on the force. 

When a Black officer was called a “spear-chucker”? Sargent was on the force. 

When someone (hmmm, maybe the officer in the KKK hood?) taped notes to a Black officer’s locker saying things like “we ain’t gonna let it happen boy, there is enough of you hear (sic) already”? Sargent was on the force. 

When the “minority affairs officer” was removed from his position after bringing said notes to the attention of Chief Gemme? Sargent was on the force. 

It really stretches credulity to think he didn’t know about any of this. I have two working theories on why he keeps saying that racism doesn’t exist, one which I believe and one which I do not. The one I don’t believe but might be true is that he does not have a firm understanding of what racism is, and might believe that the extent of racism in America is when you use one of the Bad Words and that’s the only way to be racist. The other theory which I actually believe is him saying that he’s never seen any racism in his department is a symbolic move. He’s telling his boys that he’s got their back. He’s saying I’m not going to give a single inch on this issue and I don’t care how ridiculous it sounds. He’s saying that the basic act of capitulating to the premise that there is systemic racism in police departments is a sign of weakness and I’m not going to do it.

One does not navigate the internal politics of an institution like the Worcester Police Department and come out on top without a brain. It is far more likely he is cynical than he is stupid, and that’s bad news for us. 

So the lawsuit was settled out of court and at least Davenport was promoted. I tried to get more details, including if there was any sort of financial compensation, i.e. we the taxpayers had to pay for the cops to apologize for being racist, and I was met with this curt reply from my former boss at Worcester Magazine and now city spokesman Walter Bird Jr. 

“Bill,” he wrote, “on your inquiry regarding the 2013 lawsuit, the matter has been resolved. Thank you.”

I asked again if there was any financial settlement and he responded “The statement I sent is what we are providing.” A polite way of telling me to go fuck myself, basically. 

Nevertheless, this lawsuit serves the point that racism is alive and well in the Worcester Police Department and in a sane world the leaders of said department would acknowledge it and create a plan to work on it and follow through on the plan like responsible public servants who respect that they work for everyone in the city.

But we do not live in a sane world! 

In Worcester, Sargent has been able to skate by saying and doing nothing about racism in his department with very little pushback because our city is one controlled by townies who don’t actually care and don’t actually take seriously the demands of Black Lives Matter. Racist cops are a thing that happen in some other place, not here in Worcester. In Worcester we’re different and Steve’s doing such a great job! He knelt with the Black Lives Matter protesters! 

And it’s been interesting lately to see what happens if you try to apply any political pressure on the police department at all. To even gently nudge the department to make reforms, as our Board of Health has tried to, is to ask for all-out war. Let’s not forget that the police department cancelled a meeting with the Board of Health in July on the issue of race citing vague scheduling conflicts, then had the meeting in August but conducted themselves in a purely antagonistic manner. 

It recently came to light, thanks to some good community activism and some solid reporting by Neal McNamara over at Patch, that Worcester police officials, the city law department, and the chairwoman of the Board of Health went to great lengths to make sure this meeting between the Board of Health and the Police Department would be as milquetoast and useless as possible.

Michael Traynor, the city’s main lawyer, sent a memo to the board ahead of the meeting telling them they have no jurisdiction to even inquire into police policies. The board’s charwoman, Edith Claros, did everything she could to make sure no one from the public could speak at the meeting, going against the wishes of most of the board. She closed the meeting to public comment except for the president of the police union. He was allowed to speak, of course.

Thankfully, Claros paid for her bootlicking and she received a vote of no confidence as chair from the rest of the board recently. 

But here’s the thing: the Board of Health only had power to make gentle suggestions for things the police could do differently. And the police have all the power to just completely ignore them. Only the city manager has any power to put pressure on the police department, and the city manager has only promised some vague package of police reform proposals to come out “this fall” and we’re running out of time on that. I’m not holding my breath that there will be anything too substantial or meaningful in that package, by the way. Touching the police department is a political third rail in Worcester as it is in most cities and towns in Massachusetts because cops and the network of townies surrounding and insulating the cops have immense political pull. What we would need for actual police reform and better yet reduction and relocation of the police budget is a wave of strong city council candidates and a big enough base of support to let them hang in there without fear they’ll be chewed up and spit out by the machine. That’s not going to happen at the municipal election next November, but it could start happening. Even getting to the position where we could loosen the police department’s grip on the city would take a decade and it would be a fight the whole way. 

But no one ever said it was going to be easy, folks. 

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If you appreciated this post I would appreciate you considering a subscription. It’s only a few bucks a month and the more people I have on board the more I can write stuff like this. 

Another thing to pay attention to this week is the situation over at Assumption College, where students and faculty are rightfully upset that the administration blasted out an email full of anti-gay and anti-abortion material from the Catholic Church. There’s a petition going if you want to hop on. 

I’ve been really into Tyler Childers’ new album “Long Violent History.” Every track besides the last is a pretty bluegrass instrumental and then the last track, “Long Violent History,” hits like a ton of bricks. It’s a very pointed song in support of Black Lives Matter. 

How many boys could they haul off this mountain
Shoot full of holes, cuffed and layin' in the streets
'Til we come into town in a stark ravin' anger
Looking for answers and armed to the teeth?

The song was so pointed in fact he had to release a statement explaining where he was coming from. 

It’s really brave of Tyler as an up and coming country artist to take a stand like this. He’s not like me, he’s not preaching to the choir. A good deal of his base of support, on which his livelihood depends, was upset by this stance. But he did it anyway, in a climate where country music continues to become more and more overtly fascist every day. Real respect. If we’re going to get anywhere the racists need to be led back to pasture by someone who can actually level with them. 

Ok, that’s all for now, folks!