A Local Police Chief Struggles to Bridge 2020’s Bitter Divisions –
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 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?
Khrystian King, who is Black and one of three people of color on the 11-member city council, said some residents wanted to dissolve the Worcester police department and others called it the best in the country. He, too, was caught in the middle, criticized by constituents who said he didn’t push hard enough to change the department and threatened by others for trying.
“I feared for my family’s safety, absolutely,” Mr. King said. He got security cameras for his house and was ready to buy a gun, unnerved by the unrest. “I never thought that I’d be in a position where I feel like I’d need to arm myself,” he said.
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.”
Looking back, the chief said, his father’s police career included a time when it felt like “us against them.” For years, that seemed distant from his own experience. The chief gave out his number so freely that his phone was always buzzing. “Just give me a call,” he would say in normal times.
By summer, when the national backlash against police reached a crescendo, Chief Sargent wondered what advice his father would give. When he moved into the chief’s office, he had brought photos of his dad in uniform and a book of his handwritten police logs.
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” he imagined his father saying.
Mr. King, the Black city councilor, went home after the demonstration to tuck his 3-year-old daughter into bed. He was the co-organizer. When he learned of the late-night trouble, he drove back downtown. Once there, he said, he persuaded several young protesters to go home.
A federal grand jury later indicted an 18-year-old Worcester man who allegedly paced a rooftop and urged the crowd below to “Kill the police.” Authorities said he was trying to light Molotov cocktails before officers intervened.
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.
Worcester’s demographics had grown more diverse over the years. In 1980, white residents made up 92% of the city population. In 2019, it was 55% white, 22% Hispanic and 13% Black. By contrast, about 79% of the police department’s 441 officers and officials are white, 12% Hispanic and 7% Black.
Like Chief Sargent, Mr. King, 49, grew up in Worcester. His parents emigrated from Bermuda. He played point guard at Holy Name high school and made the nearby Wheaton College basketball team. He still runs a summer league at Crompton Park.
Mr. King, married with three daughters, has put 280,000 miles on his 2002 Acura, much of that from his job as an adolescent social worker for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. He has seen enough child-welfare crises, he said, to know firsthand the challenge of police work.
He trusted Chief Sargent and said Worcester never had a police chief so attached to the city’s neighborhoods and its people. Mr. King also knew that many Black residents lived with racial prejudice, and that some didn’t trust any police, either from experience or by reputation.
Worcester had its own cases. A former police officer, who is white, was convicted of assault for kicking a Black man in a holding cell in 2014. Worcester’s Bureau of Professional Standards, which investigates police misconduct, said such cases were rare. Less than half a percent of all 4,910 arrests in 2019 yielded allegations of unnecessary force, the bureau said.
It could be that talking about revamping police practices wasn’t easy because the city’s race-related troubles weren’t as glaring as in other places, Mr. King said. “We’re not Seattle, we’re not Texas, we’re not Ferguson, that’s 100% true,” he said.
Yet, men in his own family talked about attracting attention from officers, both in and outside of Worcester, seemingly because of their skin color. Mr. King believed police had to do more to build trust among those who felt that way. He left the council meeting set on pursuing changes in the department.
Worcester, population 185,428, is a midsize city with immigrant communities, new luxury apartments, universities and a minor-league baseball stadium under construction. A former mayor said when Boston TV stations left Worcester off the weather map, he sometimes called to give whoever answered a piece of his mind.
The former mill town hit its manufacturing peak a century ago, when factories lined the Blackstone River. Many of the houses are still late 19th and early 20th century clapboard and shingle “three-deckers,” built to accommodate large families.
Chief Sargent and his brother were the third generation to live in the house where he grew up. His 80-year-old mother is still there. As a teenager, he delivered furniture for Sharpe Upholstering and washed pots and pans at Jake’s diner.
The first house he bought as a young police officer was down the street from where he was raised, a Victorian with a wraparound porch. As a kid, he said, he would walk by and daydream about living there.
While in his 20s, he moved in with his wife, Mary Sargent, now the owner of The Experience Hair Salon. Two of their sons work at local schools.
Most days, the chief, a former amateur boxer, goes to Green Hill Park, where he sprints hills and stops by the park’s Vietnam memorial. Engraved in stone are the last letters home from soldiers who died abroad. They remind him, he said, “there is no such thing as a bad day.”
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.
As a young officer, he patrolled the Great Brook Valley apartments, a sprawling public-housing complex. Sometimes, while in uniform, he joined handball games with Black, Latino and white neighbors. He kept that style as he moved up the ladder, to the detective bureau, to the gang unit and, in 2016, to chief.
In his view, the community needed police, and police needed the community. Chief Sargent assigned officers to 52 neighborhood watch groups and worked with the Worcester Black Clergy Alliance. Arrests have dropped sharply over the past five years, and most crime declined, though the city, like others, saw a spike in shootings this summer.
Chief Sargent lived his job, mostly with satisfaction. “Every day, I got up and that’s all I thought about,” he said. The city council approved a $254,000 increase to his department’s fiscal 2021 budget, bringing it to nearly $53 million, a proportion of the city’s $721 million budget roughly in line with those at similar municipalities.
At a council meeting in late June, Mr. King called for another vote on the police budget. He asked to set aside some of the money for mental-health workers to accompany police on 911 calls. The idea was gaining traction in cities seeking to overhaul their police departments.
Council members could hear the chants of people outside calling for them to shift funds from police to other city services. “We are at a unique time in history,” Mr. King told his colleagues. “We want to make sure we are on the right side of history.”
As the meeting stretched past three hours, Councilor Gary Rosen, who is white, agreed. He respected the police, he said, but “it’s time to make some changes, colleagues.”
Several council members said they would consider Mr. King’s proposal. He had three days to collect signatures from five of the 11 council members to allow another vote on the 2021 budget, which began July 1. With Mr. Rosen and Councilor Sarai Rivera onboard, he needed just two more.
Later that night, a police union leader posted a Facebook photo of a Worcester police cruiser in the City Hall garage, spray-painted with antipolice graffiti. “Look what happened at City Council meeting tonight,” the post said. “Hey, Councilors King, Rivera, and Rosen. These are the people you are bowing too. Shameful!!!”
Nearly 150 people commented on the post. “Councilor King owns this!!” one said. “His political grandstanding is why this happened.”
The following afternoon, the chief released a pointed statement saying police budget cuts would only hurt neighborhood services. He thanked city leaders who supported police “in the face of a small but vocal group of detractors.”
Mr. King failed to get the signatures he needed, and the police department got its increase.
That weekend, residents held a pro-police rally downtown. One speaker played down the viral videos of what appeared egregious police misconduct in other cities, saying anyone could edit a video to “make it look horrific.” Snippets were widely shared on Twitter.
After Mr. King and a couple of his colleagues raised more modest ideas at meetings, he said, some council members turned chilly toward him.
Nearly four hours into one council meeting, discussion started on a resolution Mr. King co-sponsored. It would commend state elected officials for a bill mandating changes to policing that was working its way through the Massachusetts legislature.
Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty, who is white, sided with Mr. King. He said the city needed to show its empathy when being a Black person in America was “challenging and maybe scary.”
“It seems like every day there is a new incident someplace,” the mayor said. “It’s not reflective on the Worcester police, but there is some place in this country every day. You watch the videos, it makes you sick.”
City Councilor Kathleen Toomey, who also is white, spoke next. “I’m gonna basically state it right now,” she said, “Black lives matter for me, there’s no question.”
Yet, she couldn’t support a resolution of thanks for legislation yet to become law, she said, and “I really resent the politicization of this, to infer that anybody who doesn’t agree with this is racist.”
“I haven’t heard anyone call anyone racist,” Mr. King said.
A council colleague sided with Ms. Toomey, saying she also felt cornered. The commendation went nowhere.
“Folks are siloing,” Mr. King recalled thinking. “You’re either pro-police or pro-Black Lives Matters.” He and the chief believed people could be both.
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.”
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 outside police headquarters was completed by volunteers on a Saturday in early August. A photo of officers posing in front was posted on the department’s Facebook page. It drew more than 1,000 comments.
“Wow, they paint a mural in retaliation for the Black Lives Matter mural, and all the police come out and celebrate it? This is heartbreaking,” one post said. Another person wrote, “People can support both, it’s ok.”
Officers walking the beat in Worcester also noticed a change. They said sometimes people crossed the street when they saw police.
On a Friday night in August, an officer was flagged down by people saying a woman had been shot. The officer saw her bleeding on the ground. As he neared, some people tried to block his way. “I’ve never seen that in my career,” the chief said later. People always cleared a space when help arrived.
He worried about how public criticism and the constant scrutiny of smartphone cameras chipped away at morale. “The anxiety of young cops worrying about being 100% all the time is real,” the chief said,” and it does take its toll.”
The department’s message to officers was to “operate in good faith, like you always do,” Deputy Chief Edward McGinn said.
Summer brought more bad news. “I get a pit in my stomach,” Chief Sargent said of days like the one in late August when a video circulated of police in Kenosha, Wis., shooting Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back.
The chief saw the pandemic and lost jobs adding to feelings of fear and anger. “People are hurting,” he told his oldest son Robert, a history teacher at Burncoat High School, the chief’s alma mater. He worried that families of police, including his own, felt they had to defend the department.
At work, his youngest son, Officer Steve Sargent, would ask, “Hey, how is it going?” the chief said.
He was regularly called to video-streamed meetings to explain police procedures to city leaders being grilled by constituents. To spare his wife some of the drama, Chief Sargent would drive to Indian Lake, open his laptop and take questions sitting alone in his unmarked department-issue Ford Taurus.
At a September meeting of the city’s Human Rights Commission, Vice Chair Jacqueline Yang wanted Chief Sargent to say there was racism at the Worcester Police Department, a declaration that America’s past racism still reverberated in public institutions.
The chief had already declared he hadn’t seen racism in his department, but even though “you haven’t seen it, doesn’t mean it’s not in the institution itself,” Ms. Yang said.
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.
David Fort, a Black member of the Worcester Board of Health, said during a meeting of his panel that he was telling people of color to keep their distance from the police department “until they can come to terms with something as simple as institutional racism.”
Edith Claros, then the board’s chairwoman, said that kind of talk threatened relations with police. Together, they had fought the opioid epidemic and other health crises, she said, work still unfinished.
Mr. King was among those disappointed in the chief’s answer. The tumultuous year had raised questions each saw differently. In June, Mr. King joined Black Families Together, a newly formed group of Black leaders pushing for changes in the police department, such as removing officers from schools.
“We’re not saying the chief is racist, but the system is,” said one of its leaders, Worcester NAACP Vice President Fred Taylor.
Members of the group told the chief in meetings that a hiring system resulting in a mostly white police department was one example of structural racism. The chief agreed there were perhaps policies that could be overhauled, but that didn’t mean they were racist. “Are there things we can do better? I hope so, yes,” he said. “But a blanket statement is just so hard to accept.”
Mr. King took long motorcycle rides though the New England countryside to clear his mind. “You’re never going to please everyone,” he told himself.
Despite their differences, he and Black Families Together decided to keep working with the chief. “It’s very important we not get stuck and mired in a situation where we’re so focused on making sure everyone is on the exact same page that we can’t progress,” Mr. King said.
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.
Mr. King and his council colleagues unanimously passed a resolution on Sept. 29 that required all city departments to provide education about systemic racism. The measure included but didn’t single out the police department.
The next night, the police department held a citizens academy for residents to learn more about police work. At the meeting, Sgt. Tim Segur spoke about the treatment of George Floyd, who was killed while in police custody. “That is not what we do,” he said. Mr. King was near the front taking notes.
That week, Chief Sargent knelt in a wooden pew at St. Bernard’s Catholic Church during the annual “Blue Mass” for first responders. The Rev. Jonathan Slavinskas said: Do not give up faith. Do not give up hope. Do not give up joy.
The chief bowed his head and prayed as he had months earlier on the street in front of the courthouse. “We’ll move forward together,” he told himself. “One step in front of another.”