WORCESTER — Police Chief Steven M. Sargent and several police officials met with the Board of Health on Monday night to discuss recommendations the board made in June in the wake of the death of George Floyd, but the chief and the board remained far apart on what action, if any, the department should take on most of the issues.
The chief, who said he felt ambushed when the board in June approved a slate of police reform recommendations, told the board in the virtual meeting Monday that his department is already doing a lot of what was suggested in the recommendations, and is guided by state law or civil service process in other areas.
Board member David Fort initially offered the recommendations, which include a call for the establishment of a community police misconduct review board, comprised of city residents with at least 50% of those members from the African American, Latino, Asian and Native American communities, as well as those from other communities who have been affected by racism, bigotry and racist violence.
They also call for clear statutory limits on police use of force, including chokeholds and other tactics known to have deadly consequences, as well as an independent investigation of officer-related deaths, and require data collection and reporting on race regarding all arrests and police use of force.
Sargent said that the department in his 35 years has never trained officers to use chokeholds or strangleholds. He also said officers are aware that they are just as culpable if they don’t intervene when another officer used excessive force, and are trained to deploy force according to reasonable standards.
The chief did not commit to supporting a community police misconduct review board or independent investigation of misconduct outside the department’s Bureau of Professional Standards. He said the in-house bureau that investigates allegations of police misconduct is as transparent as it can be within the limitations of the law.
The Telegram & Gazette has sued the city to gain access to police disciplinary records. Sargent said the department has been transparent when officers are arrested or incarcerated.
Fort also asked the chief if he thought racism or implicit bias exists within the department.
“No sir, I do not,” Sargent replied.
Fort said incidents of racism and police brutality don’t just happen in places like Minnesota, and said part of getting better as an organization is developing sustained relationships with communities of color and acknowledging its own implicit biases and positions of privilege. He said in the 60 days between the board’s initial request to meet with police administration and Monday, allegations of police misconduct in the city have surfaced.
Fort said he understood why the chief would say that he didn’t think there was racism or implicit bias in the department, but he said that was part of the point of putting forth the recommendations.
“We’re here to help,” Fort said.
Sargent said the Police Department works hard at establishing relationships in the community, and he said it strives to mirror the community in its ranks. He said the department is restricted by the guidelines of civil service process, and can only go off the list it is given for hiring and promotions.
Overall, the department is around 23% to 24% minority, but Sargent said in the upper ranks, there is only one captain and one lieutenant of color. He said when the opportunity presents itself, the department seeks to fill positions with officers that reflect the community they serve.
“When there’s an opening, we promote,” Sargent said.
Sargent said allegations of excessive force have actually been going down in recent years, but Fort said it’s hard to believe the department’s data when it has a chief that denies there is racism, discrimination, or bias among the ranks.
Board member Chareese Allen asked Sargent how it is determined who serves in Bureau of Professional Standards, and asked how residents could be assured they are not sweeping issues under the rug.
Sargent said the bureau goes through many channels throughout an investigation, and said various supervisors are looped in at all levels, including himself. He said the bureau conducts diligent, thorough investigations.
Board member Frances Anthes said the piece of the conversation that remains open to her is that “as a white person, there’s a whole lot of this I don’t know, and haven’t experienced.”
She said that partnerships between people who have different levels of privilege will be important moving forward. She told the chief she appreciated Sargent’s wariness about review boards, and appreciated his desire to keep those processes within the department. But she said moving forward, she hopes that item remains open, and that there is further thought given to including people from the community.
Even in the at-times disjointed world of virtual municipal meetings, there were tense moments. Sargent said he felt like the board ambushed the department by calling the meeting in June.
He said he was willing to have a conversation, but felt it could have been handled more professionally. He said he was asked to appear at the June meeting on little notice; there were scheduling conflicts, he said.
“We would have appreciated more of a heads-up,” Sargent said.
Fort said the department had 60 days to meet with the Board of Health. He said it wasn’t about jurisdiction — the board simply approved recommendations, but policy changes rest with the city manager’s office and the chief — it was about starting a conversation.
Sargent replied that Fort went “right to the media” and said the department meets with all types of boards and groups on a regular basis, and would have done the same in this situation.
Also, soon after board member Dr. Stanley Gurwitz urged the board to schedule a follow up with the chief to continue the dialogue, Sgt. Rick Cipro, president of the Local 504 police officials union, laid into the board, calling Fort’s questions pretentious and telling the board it had “no business in this particular conversation.”
Cipro said “contradictory data” can be found anywhere, but he said calls for service have been going up and arrests have been going down, which he said along with other police initiatives shows the city’s community policing model is working.
Board chair Edith Claros did not allow public comment during the meeting, but she said Cipro was allowed to speak because he had requested to speak at a previous meeting, but did not get the chance.
As Claros was attempting to move on to the next agenda item, Allen interjected, saying she was extremely offended by Cipro’s comments about Fort, adding that the recommendations were not put out there to be attacked.