The WPD does not need a drone
Can we tell them no, just this once?
Before we get to the matter at hand I’d like to leave this thought here to contextualize the conversation…
And then I’d suggest another quick glance at the 2021 earnings document the Telegram put together from data the city is required to release annually. You’ll notice a lot of cops in the top 100. In fact, it’s mostly cops. Only eight non-police employees of the City of Worcester got into the top 100 earners. The remaining 92 are police officers. Only two non-police got into the top 50—City Manager Ed Augustus and Superintendent Maureen Binienda. Just ne officer made more than Augustus, and 15 officers made more than Binienda.
If you consider a budget to be a reflection of an organization’s priorities, this list paints an awfully clear picture: No one in Worcester gets what they want like the cops get what they want.
So with that in mind, let’s dive into the newest thing that the cops want: a drone.
For the past several weeks a request to buy a drone with some $25,000 in grant funding (the details of which are very vague, as I’ll get to) has been slowly working its way through the processes of city government. The process has been slowed, admirably, by three city councilors and I think my loyal readers will know which ones. Councilors Thu Nguyen, Khrystian King and Etel Haxhiaj have all raised very good questions related to this potential purchase ahead of a subcommittee meeting on the matter this Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.
As I’ll get to in greater detail later in the post, the Standing Committee on Public Safety rarely meets, and they tend to only convene when it’s necessary for the cops to get some new toy, as was the case last year with the spurious “crime forecasting tool” called Shotspotter Connect. Nevertheless, this meeting on Wednesday is a wonderful opportunity for anyone reading this to voice their opposition directly. You can also watch it live on the Worcester Council Theater 3000 Twitch stream! There is a chance, however slim, that with enough public pressure we could stop the police from adding this surveillance tool to their already too-large arsenal.
The drone they’re looking for is the Matrice 300 model by DJI and it looks like this…
Per the company’s marketing material, it has a range of 15 kilometers, it can fly 7,000 feet in the air, it has three channels of 1080p resolution video (very high-def). It can fly for 55 straight minutes at a speed of 23 meters per second.
The drone boasts an AI Spot Check feature: “Onboard AI recognizes the subject of interest and identifies it in subsequent automated missions to ensure consistent framing.”
The drones can also be outfitted with loudspeakers and spotlights and features infrared heat mapping.
But what does the WPD plan to do with such a device? Well, in a 6-page report submitted to the council which Police Chief Steven Sargent assures us is the result of much research, he lists three main uses: “search and rescue,” “motor-vehicle crash investigations/scene mapping,” and “de-escalation.”
Disregarding that these well-researched uses are strikingly similar to the ones provided in the DJI marketing material, let’s take a closer look at “search and rescue.”
Under this subsection Sargent says the drones are outfitted with infrared technology which will help in searching for “lost children, elderly or any vulnerable persons needing help.” But then he spends the rest of the subsection talking about how a drone would be especially helpful in hunting the unhoused.
“A UAS would be of assistance to the City’s Quality of Life Team when searching for homeless encampments. Last year, Crisis Intervention Officers and the Quality of Life Team responded to/ visited or investigated more than 200 unsheltered sites,” he wrote. Adding later that a drone would be “another tool in the toolbox that can provide many advantages at an affordable level.”
Sargent’s report is lacking in specifics except for the bit on homeless encampments and the tone of the report suggests the cops are quite excited by the use in that context.
As we saw with the demolition of the homeless encampment behind Walmart in October, the Quality of Life Team’s modus operandi as it relates to the unhoused is to hunt them down, give them a week to “take advantage” of a variety of paltry and tepid services which don’t really help, then tear the camps down and throw out people’s shit, sending people from square zero to an even more vulnerable square zero somewhere else. The majority of the people at these camps don’t “take advantage of services” as city officials like to say but rather go try to find a new camp after the cops destroy the one they built up over however long they had to build it.
It’s a vicious cycle which only leaves the unhoused more alienated, disaffected and harder to find for the people who actually want to help them, like doctors and outreach workers. A drone would only help the department streamline this process of displacing the displaced.
At the first council meeting on the drone proposal back on April 5, Haxhiaj brought up her concerns about drones and their use on the unhoused and I didn’t catch it until rewatching the tape earlier today, but she accidentally forced Augustus to tell on himself.
Haxhiaj said that flying drones over homeless encampments, regardless of the intent, sends the wrong message to that community. She said she worries the folks at the camps will get intimidated by the technology and fall into a further state of distrust and alienation. The unintended consequences might be severe, she said.
Augustus then got up as he so often does to patronize Haxhiaj and assuage her of her silly worries. The city is going to use the drones to help build relationships with the unhoused, he said.
“In order to engage with them and create those relationships we have to know where they are,” he said.
And then in the same breath he spills the beans.
“I don’t think it would be right to assume we’re using them as a way just to break them up,” he said, referring to the camps. “It’s a way to really engage them and get them the help they need.”
Haxhiaj never said anything about the department using drones to break up camps. She was careful in her words and it was not an accusation she leveled. No, our city manager let that admission fly unprompted. All Haxhiaj said was the unhoused would be unsettled by drones flying overhead. The bit about using drones to break the camps up, that was all Augustus. Whoops! That’s what we call saying the quiet part out loud, Ed!
To his credit, it would take quite the delicate orator to dance around the fact that breaking up camps is, like, 90 percent of the city’s strategy as it relates to the unhoused. The other 10 is, as Augustus said, “getting them the help they need.” Whether that be a temporary stay in a run-down and dangerous homeless shelter, a housing voucher they can’t use, or a drug treatment program that is basically just prison. Yeah, the help they need.
The cops do not need any new technology which makes them more effective at carrying out this strategy and perpetuating this cycle. A sane city government would throw out the proposal. But we do not have a sane city government. The City Council is for the most part oriented around fealty to the police department, not challenging it. Look no further than the Standing Committee on Public Safety, the council subcommittee which should be the vehicle through which the WPD’s budget and policies are interogated, to see how the council has abdicated that responsibility.
Chaired by Councilor Kate Toomey as it has been for years, the subcommittee rarely meets. So far this year, there have been two meetings scheduled. The one for drones coming up and one last week for body cameras. Both have very light agendas. This week, just one item. Last week, the same. It’s up to Toomey to set the agenda and call meetings and she only ever does it to rubber stamp the department’s requests.
Going into this meeting on Wednesday, there are still significant questions the department has yet to answer. Nguyen tried at the council meeting last week to delay the subcommittee hearing until those questions are answered by the department, but the motion to do so failed, 3-7 (and I think you can guess the three in favor by now).
So, ahead of the meeting, let’s work through some of those questions.
First off, what is this grant?
Deputy Chief Paul Saucier told the Council at the April 5 meeting that the drone funding is part of a $100,000 grant, but didn’t say what organization is awarding the grant or how the other $75,000 will be put to use, which is worrying! Saucier only said that the money has to be used by October. The mayor and other councilors have since used his statement as a cudgel to push the proposal along. At the last meeting, the proposal was all of a sudden “time sensitive.” Nguyen tried to delay the matter because they had not yet received the information they asked for earlier in the month—a report on best practices as it relates to drones and also a copy of the grant in question—and the mayor tried to talk Nguyen out of it.
Similarly, the report that Sargent filed with the council says only that the grant is state money and that it was secured by State Sen. Michael Moore. The report doesn’t name any agency or program, just a vague “grant.” I poked around and found that Moore had a hand in securing a $250,000 grant for the Worcester Police Department in December, but the stated purpose for that was body cameras. Of course, this body camera grant could have included money for other surveillance tools (because body cameras are not an accountability tool so much as they are a surveillance tool) but if that’s the case, it has not been made public. At the April 5 meeting, the police department filed two reports—one on its request for drones and one updating the council on the body camera implementation—so the timing would suggest there’s some relation.
Sen. Moore also sits on the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, and he’s the author of a bill outlining appropriate uses of drones which is currently making its way through the legislative process.
That Moore is involved in acquiring drone money for the WPD in some as-of-yet unknown way and also sits on the homeland security senate committee brings us neatly to our next question.
What is the scope of surveillance?
Despite the myriad uses outlined in the chief’s report and the public comments of the deputy chief, drones are first and foremost surveillance tools. They take pictures, they take video, and the department gathers and holds on to those pictures and videos.
Worcester has a ban on the use of facial recognition software enacted last December. In a memo filed with the council earlier this month, City Solicitor Mike Traynor says that a drone doesn’t violate the ban. He appropriately identifies drones as “surveillance equipment,” but said that he confirmed with the WPD that the drone would not come outfitted with facial surveillance technology. He was however careful to point out that the drones will be taking pictures and videos of people’s faces. It’s just that they won’t be running the data through facial recognition software. So it’s chill.
“The capturing of video surveillance and photos, even if those videos and photos are capable of being associated with an identifiable individual or group, does not amount to facial surveillance,” he writes.
This is where shit gets murky. If the Worcester Police Department were its own isolated entity operating in a vacuum, then Traynor’s argument would totally hold water. It’s just a camera like any other surveillance camera. Only difference is it can fly around.
But the WPD shares information and works with the Massachusetts State Police, the Central Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, and, most importantly, the Commonwealth Fusion Center. The Fusion Center is a collaboration between local, state and federal law enforcement which “collects and analyzes information from all available sources to produce and disseminate actionable intelligence to stakeholders for strategic and tactical decision-making in order to disrupt domestic and international terrorism.”
Fusion Centers are an integral part of the post-9/11 surveillance state and as such are unsurprisingly littered with red flags when it comes to civil liberties. They’re shadowy and unaccountable and as of yet there’s no state or federal ban on the use of facial recognition. Boston’s fusion center has a long history of spying on activists and journalists.
Worcester’s facial recognition bans the use of facial recognition technology and using information obtained from facial recognition technology. But on that second point there’s some pretty hefty exceptions.
Exception number one here gives the cops a lot of leeway. Basically what it’s saying is the cops can use another agency’s facial recognition software so long as they are investigating a crime. That means you could simply take your drone footage, send it over to the fusion center and, if they get a hit, you can act on it. You just have to demonstrate that it’s in service of the investigation of a crime, which is not very hard to do.
Call me crazy, but that doesn’t at all assuage the justified concern that facial recognition software will lead to people of color being further and more unfairly targeted by police. In fact, it’s a carve-out that all but permits it. It ensures that facial recognition technology is banned except in the exact situation that everyone is worried about.
Long story short, when you hear that Worcester has a ban on facial recognition software so a drone can’t be used toward that end, it’s simply not true. I would expect that on Wednesday we’re going to hear that an awful lot.
So now, point number three…
How will the drone actually be used?
We have a report from the chief indicating three prime uses: hunting down homeless encampments (sorry, “search and rescue”), reconstructing accidents and as a tool for de-escalation in hostage situations. The report also provides three other uses: “visual perspective,” “scene documentation,” and the hilariously vague “provide assistance.”
Examples given of “visual perspective” include “crowd guidance,” which sounds an awful lot like monitoring a protest; “traffic flow management,” which is fine I guess, but what are you gonna do, it’s just traffic; and “temporary perimeter security in the event a dangerous suspect is hiding in a neighborhood.” So a mini chase helicopter like in our own little version of Cops.
Examples of “scene documentation” include crime scenes and the site of disasters but also—and this has been very little discussed—for hunting people on off-road vehicles. “These primarily stolen motorcycles observed each year harassing motorists and at times threatening or assaulting citizens.” The drone will help them figure out where they’re keeping the dirt bikes and ATVs. I see no circumstance in which the cops don’t use this exact same tactic on the Wheelie Kids who are guilty of nothing but being young and having a cool subcultural hobby but are nevertheless villainized and targeted for reasons that I’m sure have nothing at all to do with the color of their skin or the neighborhoods they live in.
The third point, “provide assistance,” basically means loaning it out to other departments. The ones mentioned are the Quality of Life Team (for the aforementioned homeless hunting), the DPW, Animal Control and the Fire Department.
In the past six months, Saucier told the council that the department has used a State Police drone twice—once to scope a rooftop as part of a homicide investigation and another time in a missing person case. WPD can apparently employ the State Police’s drone quite freely, but Saucier said they need their own because they can deploy it faster and in certain situations “seconds mean lives.” Sounds like a line just vague and scary enough to convince people to buy you whatever you want whenever you want but that’s just this guy’s opinion.
Saucier, like any good Tom Clancy type, really played up the hostage situation angle. Augustus for his part stressed the homeless angle on the tenuous line that the city is trying to help.
I’m being somewhat exhaustive in going through this but toward a point. We do not know how the department will actually use the device or by what set of policies and procedures they will guide the use. Nguyen and King have asked for more information on this front and the city has yet to deliver it. Nevertheless, we’re heading into the subcommittee meeting Wednesday without that necessary information. Time is of the essence, after all. Can’t let the slow wheels of government stop the cops from buying a drone before the money’s gone in October. We can let the slow wheels of government prevent a lot of stuff but definitely not that.
I agreed with Nguyen when they said at the last council meeting “I also think just because we have this money doesn’t mean we have to spend it.”
It’s refreshing to hear a comment like that aimed at a department that’s so used to getting exactly what it wants when it wants it and without a question—a department that wrangled freakin’ horses out of a city with a nine-figure school building maintenance backlog.
Anyway you’ve heard that tangent before and this post is getting long. So, onto our fourth question…
How can they use it?
Should Worcester purchase a drone, it would be far from the first police department in America to do so, and a review of how police departments are using drones right now is about as grim as you’d expect.
There’s Chula Vista, California, which sends a drone out with every single 911 call—dozens of drone flights per day and a hiring pipeline between the department and the company providing the drones. The department is something of an innovator, having secured special clearance from the Federal Aviation Authority for its “Drones as First Responders” program. If you want to find an example of where law enforcement is heading with drone usage short of any preventative measures, Chula Vista is the municipality to watch.
But across the country it seems the unhoused population is one of the more popular subjects of law enforcement drone deployment and experimentation.
In 2020, the Sheriff’s Office in Calvert County, Maryland started sending drones equipped with loudspeakers to “monitor people in homeless encampments and broadcast public health announcements from the sky.” An NBC article about the practice identifies it as a growing trend, ostensibly brought on by the public health challenges of the pandemic—drones where the unhoused congregate with advisories from the Police Department. Right out of Blade Runner.
DJI, the drone company the WPD hopes to purchase from, seized on the pandemic to “Put Drones to Work in Combatting (sic) COVID-19.”
And now, two years later, officials in Worcester aren’t even bothering with the COVID angle and our city manager is talking about how it’s not just for breaking up the camps. Don’t get me wrong, we’re going to use them to break up camps, but we’re going to do other stuff too.
Now the last and most important question…
What can we do about it?
In order for the WPD to buy this drone, the subcommittee on Wednesday needs to recommend it favorably back to the full council, and the full council needs to then vote to approve it. The committee is chaired by Toomey and she’s joined by Councilors Donna Colorio and Sarai Rivera. Toomey is already on record as being all the way in favor of the proposal. Colorio’s politics are such that I have a hard time seeing her ever saying no to the police in any way. Rivera has acknowledged the concerns of the community but I don’t see her voting against it either. I see either a 3-0 recommendation or, if we’re lucky, a 2-1 recommendation with Rivera against. Either way, it’s going back to the full City Council.
But the meeting Wednesday is still a great place to voice opposition, and I’d encourage all my readers to do so (follow the instructions in the agenda to sign up to speak). While it’s unlikely we can outright stop the council from giving the cops a drone as only three councilors out of 11 have raised any concerns at all, we can push for provisions that curtail its most nefarious possible uses.
I personally think a provision which prevents the department from sharing drone footage with any outside law enforcement agency would do a lot of good. If I were a councilor, that’s what I would be pushing for. I would also push for prohibiting the use of audio loudspeaker attachments.
We should also support King’s proposal to ban the use of drones for searching homeless encampments.
We should support Haxhiaj’s request that drone use on homeless camps come with a minimum 7-day, and ideally 14-day, warning.
We should support Nguyen’s efforts to delay approval until the police department provides a concrete draft policy on exactly how the drone will and will not be used. To approve it before seeing that document is a dereliction of the council’s oversight duties.
Will any of these things happen? Maybe, maybe not. This is yet another example of the council’s progressive bloc not quite having the votes it needs to execute on its priorities.
But I want to return to the thought with which I opened this post, that at a certain point you have to accept that elected officials are just afraid of the police. It’s the kind of thought that may at first seem a little banal and reductive but to my mind, having covered municipal government for years now, it holds a hell of a lot of truth. I’ve never seen a city or town’s executive body act in any way that wasn’t thoroughly derrential to its police department, despite its intended function of oversight and accountability. ‘The chief and his staff of brave men and women are always doing such a great job and in such a brave and thankless line of work and I’d be remiss if I didn’t, on behalf of [insert city or town], salute you for your service. Where would we be without you. What more can we give you.’
Worcester is as fine an example as any. You need only look at how long Kate Toomey has controlled the Standing Committee on Public Safety to understand how unseriously the powers that be take the role of overseeing the police department. Watch just one police budget ‘review’ session during one budget season to see how councilors take it as an opportunity to lavish praise and pay fealty…
The cops get what they want in this city. They’re not used to hearing no.
The progressive bloc of the council is laying the foundation for a City Council which takes the role of oversight seriously and is willing to look at the department’s decisions critically.
A strong showing on Wednesday would go a long way in showing the rest of the council, cozy in the thrall of total deference, that this new way of thinking about things has support.
This post was a bit longer than usual and it took me a bit longer to do, hence my posting it at this late hour. Please consider a paid subscription if you found this to be a productive piece of local journalism because paid subscribers are the way I keep the lights on over here.
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Usually I’d have more to say in this little postscript section but the hour grows late and I am headed up to Maine for a few days away from our fucked up little city :-)
Until next time!