Lawyer and misconduct adviser in Worcester Police investigation

WORCESTER – In the hours after the US Department of Justice announced a civil rights investigation into the police department on Tuesdaycommunity leaders met with federal investigators and several city councilors shared their concerns.

In a meeting she called with community members on Tuesday afternoon, Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Rachael S. Rollins declined to say specifically what prompted the investigation, but noted that the department’s due diligence included reviewing media reports, legal settlements and complaints.

“I’m sorry we’re here because obviously there were issues getting us here,” Rollins told about 60 people in a Zoom call, adding that she’s committed to a full and fair investigation. to find out if the department is using excessive force or discriminating. on race or gender.

Supporters who have long criticized the city’s police department as problematic and opaque celebrated the news, which city leaders say caught them off guard.

Several municipal councillors, who devoted most of their meeting on Tuesday to a pre-scheduled vote offering Acting City Manager Eric D. Batista the full-time jobbriefly discussed the probe around 11 p.m. in a comment reflecting the traditional battle lines.

Public Safety Committee Chair Kate Toomey, along with Batista, Mayor Joseph M. Petty and Police Chief Steven M. Sargent on Tuesday, pledged to cooperate with the investigation. But she also had critical words for her deployment.

Toomey and District 2 Councilwoman Candy Mero-Carlson expressed concern to learn of the investigation from press reports, while General Councilor Khrystian King focused primarily on his opinion regarding the substance of the information. .

“It’s a direct result of the lack of (police) oversight from us as a council,” King – who has advocated for stalled reforms – said in comments Toomey objected to.

Toomey called it a “travesty” that Rollins held a meeting with community members without telling the city, saying it raised transparency issues.

Flat foot

City officials were caught off guard by Tuesday’s announcement, saying they received very little notice.

In interviews with the Telegram & Gazette, Petty and Batista said Rollins’ office called them at the federal courthouse around 11:45 a.m. without telling them the reason.

Petty said he, Batista, Sargent and the best lawyer in town, Michael E. Traynor, received the Rollins news during a cordial discussion that lasted about an hour.

Both Batista and Petty said Rollins’ office did not detail any specific incident that led to the investigation and offered their full cooperation.

The two men and Sargent issued a brief statement pledging to cooperate on Tuesday afternoon. Sargent declined a request for an interview on Wednesday.

Rollins and the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., announced in a Press release around 1 p.m. Tuesday that they had found “significant justification” to investigate whether Worcester police routinely used excessive force or discriminated on the basis of race or gender.

The press release did not mention any single incident or event as triggering the investigation, which it attributed to “information” provided to it.

Rollins talks to community members

On a 4-hour Zoom call hosted with a number of community members — including local leaders of color, civil rights activists and defense attorneys — Rollins answered questions for about an hour.

The call, which was not announced in the press release but was announced separately via email to “stakeholders” on Tuesday, was unrecorded, Rollins said, and was intended to be a information meeting.

At least one advocacy group posted a meeting notice on Facebook. Several media were present and Rollins answered a question from Telegram & Gazette.

Asked for more information on what led to the investigation, Rollins and other prosecutors told the T&G they could not say exactly what prompted specific investigations, but they generally review public information. such as media reports and court settlements.

Rollins told members on the call that the review was a kind of “mini-survey.”

“This is a careful review of the publicly available information we receive,” said Nicole Porter, attorney for the DOJ in Washington, as well as the nature, frequency and seriousness of complaints filed against a department. .

Porter said the Worcester investigation will be one of about 80 “model or practice” investigations the DOJ has launched nationwide since it began these efforts in 1994.

She said the department has the authority to investigate any of the approximately 18,000 law enforcement jurisdictions in the country. It does not choose to investigate every agency it reviews, she said, and weighs the resources needed to conduct a full investigation before selecting an agency.

Calls for the review have multiplied

Worcester, like many cities of its size, has faced growing calls for increased police surveillance in recent years, with changes slow to develop.

The city, the second largest in New England, has yet to implement body cameras resisted request a civil review board and, last year, a judge ruled that he had illegally withheld T&G police records for years.

The judge ordered the city to pay $100,000 in legal fees from the newspaper as well as $5,000 into a public fund after concluding that he had withheld the records in bad faith.

Records related to how the police department investigates its own officers, called internal affairs processes. Rollins said during his call Tuesday that investigators will review the city’s internal affairs process as part of their investigation.

The T&G sued for the internal affairs records after Hector E. Pineiro, a civil rights attorney for the city, filed a voluminous complaint with Rollins’ predecessor in 2018 alleging widespread constitutional violations on the streets and courts of Worcester.

Pineiro alleged that officers from the Worcester Drug and Gang Units were routinely violating civil rightsand that prosecutors were not fulfilling their ethical obligations to inform defendants of credibility issues or misconduct.

Pineiro filed his complaint with Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., Attorney General Maura T. Healey, and then-U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew E. Lelling, none of them have ever publicly stated what happened.

At a press conference when he took office in January, Rollins told the T&G that she would look into what would happen to Pineiro’s complaint.

In an interview Wednesday, Pineiro said he welcomed Rollins’ investigation as a necessary investigation that will be conducted in a fair and thorough manner.

“We hope that everyone, regardless of their perspective, sees this process as an opportunity to improve one of the most vital and challenging functions of our municipal government,” he said.

Former Health Board chief reacts

David Fort, who clashed with Sargent and other police chiefs over police reform in 2020 when he chaired the Health Council, said Wednesday the DOJ investigation was badly needed .

“My dad always told us, ‘If you don’t hear, you’ll feel,'” said Fort, whose calls for police reforms – including a civilian police review board – went unanswered. .

“Worcester is always the latest in reform,” he said, noting that Boston and Springfield have review boards and body cameras.

Fort, echoing King’s comments outside the council on Tuesday, said Worcester’s failure to listen to the advice of its communities of color is “coming home to roost.”

Sargent, Fort noted, refused to acknowledge the racism in his department, make statements that seemed to be contradicted by the history of the department.

Fort said that while police resistance to change is nothing new, the city council could have put in place a review board and other measures “overnight”, but chose not to. .

Fort said he had, since leaving the Board of Health, continued to advocate behind the scenes for a civilian review board, to no avail.

Fort said he had a conversation with Batista on the subject for the past four months or so during which, he said, Batista “vehemently” pushed back against the idea that such advice was necessary.

Batista did not immediately return a request for an interview on the subject filed through a city spokesperson on Wednesday.

His predecessor, Edward M. Augustus Jr., ordered a number of audits aimed at examining institutional racism in 2020, including a recently released unflattering fairness audit of City Hall and a fairness audit at come from the police department.

Batista also declined to discuss the body cameras with spokeswoman Amy Peterson, saying he would brief City Council on the matter soon.

Augustus told the T&G in April 2021 that the city would implement body cameras in 2022.

When he made the statement, the city was the only one of New England’s eight most populous cities without body cameras.

Reforms could be imposed

In his appeal Tuesday, Rollins noted that depending on the outcome of his office’s investigation, the city could be legally compelled to make reforms.

Typically, issues uncovered during these investigations are resolved by a consent decree, she said — a legal agreement to make changes that is overseen by a third-party monitor.

Rollins said Tuesday’s call was just the first step in an ongoing dialogue with community members to gather information for the investigation.

The DOJ asks people with relevant information to contact it by email at community.wpd@usdoj.gov or by calling toll-free 888-221-6023.

Staff responding to a question said on Tuesday that tips would remain secret and would be exempt from freedom of information laws.

They said they expected a website to be set up with more information on future meetings and events related to the investigation, which has no particular timeframe for completion.

The DOJ investigation will be the second conducted in Massachusetts in recent years, as Springfield signed a consent decree this year following the discovery that its drug unit has consistently used excessive force.

Contact Brad Petrishen at brad.petrishen@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @BPetrishenTG.