Police Chief Steve Sargent’s front page WSJ article paints a horribly slanted picture.
For what reason the Wall Street Journal decided to publish this article I will never know. It ran online on Friday and in print on Saturday. Not only did it run, it ran on the freakin front page. The front page of the freakin weekend edition no less.
The print headline: “A police chief struggles to bridge 2020’s bitter divide”
The subhead: “Steven Sargent stood between residents seeking to revamp his police department and those angry over claims it was racist”
Um, excuse me, he did nothing of the sort.
What follows is a long puff piece which seeks to cast Sargent and City Councilor Khrystian King, the most vocal critic of the police on the City Council, as two members of the same team, trying to save the Worcester Police Department from those who want to see it change. It is absolutely 100 percent cut-from-whole-cloth abject bullshit and I say that with all the conviction I can muster.
Here are some of the things that did not make the article: Police in riot gear force marched protesters down the street on June 1 and shot pepper balls and smoke grenades and foam-tipped bullets at them. Worcester Police Chief Steve Sargent has at least twice said that he’s never seen an instance of racism in the Worcester Police Department despite well documented incidents of overt racism—let alone systemic—while he was on the force. Sargent twice bailed on the Board of Health when it asked him to come in and talk about the issue of racism in the police department. When he did eventually show up, he was completely unwilling to accept even a base suggestion. Recently, he did the same thing to the Human Rights Commission. The police department has not put forth even a marginal package of reforms in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Neither has the City Manager, though he promises it’s coming at some point. The department and the city are actively fighting a years-long lawsuit filed by the Telegram for police officer disciplinary records.
That’s just off the top of my head. But let’s go through it.
WORCESTER, Mass.—Police Chief Steven Sargent knelt on the street for close to nine minutes, head bowed, hands clasped. He wore a sidearm on his hip and a gold badge on his chest. His stomach was in a knot.
The chief was surrounded by thousands of protesters gathered in his hometown, the second-largest city in New England. The crowd marched down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and took a knee in front of the courthouse on June 1, posing silently for roughly the same length of time George Floyd had been pinned to a street in Minneapolis by an officer’s knee on his neck a week earlier.
“Damn,” Chief Sargent recalled thinking as the minutes passed. “That’s a long time.” He was disgusted at Mr. Floyd’s death, and told residents and his officers as much. None worthy of the badge thought what happened was right.
The last line of the opening paragraph, “His stomach was in a knot,” sets up what this piece is going to be like. It wasn’t “He said his stomach was in a knot” or “He remembered a knot in his stomach.” The writer just gives it to him, like it’s provable fact. When a journalist abandons traditional attribution like that, it’s a feature story. It’s not a critical examination. It doesn’t seek to accurately portray the political situation. Its focus is the person at the center of the story and their experience. Why, you might ask, would the Wall Street Journal run a feature on a police chief in a forgettable mid-sized American city for an international audience? Really good question. I’d love to hear an answer.
Then the quote—“Damn, that’s a long time.” What’s that supposed to mean? I would have had my knee on his neck for less time? I’d also like a fact check on “None worthy of the badge thought what happened was right” because the whole bit about “he was a thug that had it coming” was especially popular around our law enforcement types around here. If with that line you’re trying to have the conversation that a lot of police officers have the badge and don’t deserve it I’ll have that conversation, hell yeah. But that’s not the point of this line. Not even close. It seeks to pan the murder Derek Chauvin committed as an anomaly and not a particularly brutal example of routine police behavior. Already, with these three paragraphs, the article is showing its true colors: cop-kissing public relations copy. I hope somebody paid for this but the sad part is it’s much more likely no one did, the writer just pitched this and the editors liked it.
The chief, a white Irish Catholic, recited a Hail Mary and then glanced around the crowd. That day, protesters had thanked police. One demonstrator asked for a selfie with the chief. “We can get through this,” Chief Sargent said to himself. “We’re all in this together.”
Neighbors, however, retreated to their corners. The chief described what happened next as the great divide, a time when navigating the middle ground between police and protesters turned treacherous. In the months since, he and other city officials struggled to answer the pointed question echoed by residents in cities nationwide: Whose side are you on?
That day, protesters had thanked police. Okay. Yes, at this protest against systemic racism and brutality in American policing people thanked the police. What kind of white washing bullshit is that. And no, chief, we are not all in this together. You have not demonstrated once that the issue of systemic racism in policing is one you take seriously. All of your actions publicly in fact demonstrate the opposite. Lest we forget you are on record saying you’ve never seen an instance of racism in the Worcester police department despite multiple racial discrimination lawsuits and the cold-blooded murder of a Hispanic man by two Worcester police officers during your time on the force. The author here really gives Sargent a lot of slack when she says he was trying to “navigate the middle ground” between police and protesters. Neither he nor close to anyone in City Hall—besides the one councilor who is also profiled in this piece—ever tried to find any middle ground. It was all police all the way and the demands of protesters were met with cold indifference. If the Wall Street Journal wanted to tell the real story here, it would be “Police chief, city government ignore BLM until it goes away.” Obviously there is no incentive for a paper like the Wall Street Journal to write that story. But a humanizing portrait of a small town Irish cop doing his best? Catnip.
Following this passage there’s a bit about Khrystian King which I want to skip for now to focus on the chief but I’ll likely come back to it. Here’s where the article gets real hairy.
Trouble broke out at the June 1 demonstration well after most people had gone home. Police said a separate crowd vandalized storefronts and launched rocks, bottles and fireworks at officers; 19 people were arrested.
Alberto Rivera, owner of the Main Street Superette, said he found his windows smashed and the change drawer pried open. He said he was also saddened by the damage vandals did to the demonstrators’ message.
Chief Sargent, 59 years old, has lived in the city many pronounce “Wu-stuh” for all but the two years he served in the Army as a military policeman in Alabama and Germany. His late father was a Worcester police lieutenant, and one of his three sons is a patrolman. Many locals call him “Sarge,” a nickname still carved into a wooden gazebo at the park where he played as a boy.
He was 8 when his father joined the department in 1969. As a child, the chief saw the anger directed at police in the Vietnam War era. “Why do you want to be a cop?” he once asked his dad. “It doesn’t look like people really like you.”
Two measly lines about the outrageous and excessive show of force by the Worcester Police Department on Black Lives Matter demonstrators before the article incongruently jumps back into Sargent’s back story. And the author here says nothing of the riot gear or the pepperball rounds or the foam-tipped bullets or the force marching; she just calls them “vandals” and said they threw stuff at the police. My god. And this is how the author, Jennifer Levitz, chose to portray the massive demands from the community, led by Defund WPD, to take money from the police department’s budget and allocate it somewhere more useful.
The next day tension surfaced during a live-streamed council meeting at Worcester’s grand Italianate-style City Hall. Residents joined on a call-in line.
At the start, the council held a moment of silence for Mr. Floyd. Then public comments began. Many speakers demanded cuts to the police budget. One compared police in riot gear with terrorists. Several council members defended the police.
Mr. King said he didn’t believe anyone there supported police brutality or looting and attacks on officers. Some of his colleagues and constituents found it hard to talk at all about race, much less about prejudice and policing, he said later.
Through this entire piece, Levitz skims like lightning through the actual problems and the actual political dramas surrounding Sargent and King and instead chooses to focus on puffy and irrelevant portraits of Worcester as a “former mill town” and portraits of King and Sargent as good hometown boys.
I’m going to skim past all of that because it’s boring but I want you all to read this passage here.
For years, Chief Sargent couldn’t go anywhere in Worcester without bumping into someone who wanted to chat. Over the summer, he felt a shift.
Some people backed away. Others gave exaggerated atta-boys. Drivers passed officers on traffic detail and pumped their fists in support. On the street, people approached officers and said, “We’ve got your back.”
The chief appreciated the kind words, but the sentiments felt off-kilter, he said, like playing in a football game and cheered only by fans on one side of the field. He believed having relationships in all corners of the city formed the foundation of good policing.
“Awwwww people aren’t being nice enough to me!” Self-victimization at its finest. If there’s one thing BLM proved in Worcester it’s that the cops will do everything they can to put on some sad puppy eyes and go oh but what about me how do you think this all makes me feel? You’re spending an awful lot of time talking about the neck but did you ever stop and think about how the knee on it? How does the knee feel about being there? Do you think it wants to be on that neck?
And then we get to Levitz’s absolutely brilliant, galaxy brain retelling of the BLM mural on Major Taylor Boulevard and the obviously reactionary and ultimately messageless pro-police mural in their parking lot.
In July, local artists and volunteers painted a Black Lives Matter mural on the pavement near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Major Taylor Boulevard, a street named for a Black cyclist.
Chief Sargent dropped by and spoke with the artists while they were working. He said there were phenomenal parts to the BLM movement, bringing “attention to issues that need to be talked about.”
Another local artist soon announced plans for a mural honoring police. The idea was to solicit donations to paint a giant image of the blue patch worn by Worcester officers and to give any money left over to charity, including the Boys & Girls Club of Worcester. The department had raised nearly $1 million for the club over the years, and many officers worked as volunteers. Chief Sargent joined as a boy and was in the chapter’s “Hall of Fame.”
First of all, the guy who launched the Go Fund Me is not a local artist. Second of all they originally planned to paint something in the street outside the police station. Third of all the leftover money went to a local priest’s athletic mentoring program ($2,000 out of about $5000 raised), and this is all well documented on the GoFundMe page. So with that in mind, more needless self-victimizing that Levitz just lets Sargent have without anything close to a critical lens:
He was surprised by what happened next. “We do not sanction or approve this project,” the club’s executive director Liz Hamilton wrote on Facebook. She refused to accept the proceeds.
While the department had long been a generous partner, the police mural felt disrespectful, coming a week after the BLM mural, she said later. Ms. Hamilton wanted to speak up on behalf of the children of color who came to the club, she said.
“Are you kidding me?” Chief Sargent thought. He didn’t see the two murals at odds. “Even our friends, our closest, closest friends and allies” felt they had to keep their distance publicly, he said.
“If there was no Black Lives Matter mural, it’s not likely they would have done a police mural,” Mr. King said.
The mural was absolutely and 100 percent a reaction to the BLM mural. The fundraising started almost as soon as the mural was completed. I’ve said it before but Sargent is not a dumb man. No one climbs to the top of an organization as large as the Worcester Police Department without having some sort of head on his shoulders. So when he says here, in this article, that he “didn’t see the two murals at odds,” that’s what we like to call being willfully obtuse.
You know what might have helped your “closest friends” not “keep their distance,” Steve? If you did one thing, just one thing to concretely address the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. Kneeling with demonstrators is not a concrete thing. That is a symbolic gesture. To perform a symbolic gesture then balk at every subsequent demand for change and put forward no proposal of your own? That’s pure cynicism. That’s worse than publicly bashing BLM. If you think you can make the problem go away by simply saying “I hear you” you don’t actually think there’s a problem.
This passage, from a meeting where Sargent famously said he’s never seen any instance of racism in the Worcester Police Department, is just straight up depressing.
Many thoughts passed through the chief’s mind, he later recalled. For one, he didn’t have his head in the sand about racism. He had seen it firsthand, when serving in the military and while growing up. He agreed that parts of the criminal-justice system, including bail, sometimes worked against poor and often minority people. And Worcester police had addressed allegations of racism against some of its own officers in the past.
But that didn’t mean he could say the police department, to which three generations of his family and hundreds of sworn officers had devoted themselves, was a racist organization.
Ms. Yang then asked him directly, “Is there institutional racism within the department?”
“No,” the chief said. “If there was, it would not be tolerated.”
His response made local headlines and stirred feelings.
Worcester police have addressed allegations of racism in the past, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to say that systemic racism exists in the department, the Chief basically said. Let’s not get too carried away here.
What are we supposed to do with this? The guy can’t even acknowledge the problem. There is no middle ground to be had here. This is why the abolitionist train of thought must win. Police as an institution is lost and cannot be compromised with. The people who buy into the narrative that law enforcement is the “thin blue line” between good and evil will never understand the horrors of this world that the institution has wrought and continues to maintain. That’s why police departments need to be stripped of their resources—incrementally and responsibly—and those resources need to be put in the hands of people who better understand how to create a more just and equitable world. Police have too much power, too much sway over municipal politics, and they are blind to their own injustices.
Here’s one measly passage in this long (overly long, in my opinion) feature on proposals to reform the police department.
In late September, Chief Sargent joined with other Massachusetts police chiefs who cosigned a letter asking the state for more flexibility in civil-service rules—one way, they said, to help diversify hiring and promotions.
The city stopped redacting the conclusions of internal-affairs investigations of alleged police misconduct, and the city manager started researching civilian review boards. Worcester also agreed to deploy police body cameras, which had been long discussed. The chief voiced support.
Oh you made a small procedural change in the way you process police misconduct records which you still won’t release to the public and are currently being sued for? Oh the City Manager googled ‘civilian review board good or bad’? Oh, you’re going to try to get even more money for body cameras which the cops are just going to turn off to do bad shit anyway? Great. Problem solved. You did it.
I’m going to close with this line which is just so funny and perfectly captures the victim complex bullshit that this article perfectly captures.
Officers walking the beat in Worcester also noticed a change. They said sometimes people crossed the street when they saw police.
Haha maybe if you weren’t the walking symbol of America’s racist system of class oppression people might feel a little more comfortable around you? Maybe if you weren’t armed to the teeth with all sorts of “less-than-lethal” weapons and also four magazines of ammo for your pistol and a kevlar vest people would be a little less afraid of you? Look at this guy showing up to a damn toy drive looking like GI Joe.
Maybe if we didn’t see videos near weekly of people wearing the same badge as you firing 25 bullets into the back of an unarmed man, people would be less afraid of you?
Boo-hoo bitch. You don’t like it, don’t be a cop. It’s really that simple.
This article first appeared on Worcester Sucks and I Love It, a newsletter on politics and culture in Worcester (billshaner.substack.com).