Worcester leaders and criminal justice advocates are reacting to the sudden retirement of the city’s longtime police chief Steven Sargent on Friday amid increasing scrutiny of the police department.

Sargent spent 37 years as a Worcester officer, the last seven of which he served as police chief.

Worcester officials have not provided a reason for his retirement.

In a release Friday announcing the decision, the city praised Sargent for helping lower the city’s crime rate and for adopting new policing technologies like body cameras and a gunshot detection system called ShotSpotter.

“I want to thank Chief Sargent for his dedicated years of service to the City,” Worcester City Manager Eric Batista said in the press release. “I value the relationship we established between the department and my administration to serve the community.”

His retirement comes as the U.S. Department of Justice continues to investigate the Worcester Police Department for excessive use of force and discriminatory policing based on race and sex. Criminal justice advocates have blamed Sargent for allowing officers to habitually fabricate evidence and illegally falsify charges to justify arrests and use of force.

“Him resigning is in the best interest of the police department and the city moving forward,” Worcester defense attorney Joseph Hennessey said. “This department has a very long history of not holding officers accountable. That falls under leadership. That’s the chief’s responsibility.”

The advocates point to the city’s settlement of numerous lawsuits against the police department over the last decade, for reasons that include false arrests. In one more recent lawsuit that has not been settled, a plaintiff alleges officers violated her civil rights when they strip-searched her during a traffic stop after they suspected she was involved in a drug transaction. When they realized she wasn't, the lawsuit says they tried to justify the stop by falsely saying she had an illegal license plate.

Sargent himself has faced additional criticism recently. Worcester officer Robert Belsito plans to sue him and the city over an alleged pattern of harassment by the now-former chief. Belsito has accused Sargent of routinely accosting and embarrassing him, claims supported by an independent investigation commissioned by the city. Most recently, Belsito cites a road rage incident in which Sargent allegedly swerved toward his cruiser.

“[Retirement] was well overdue. I think it was time for him to leave,” said Derrick Kiser, who runs the nonprofit Fresh Start, which helps at-risk youth stay out of the criminal justice system.

In addition to the recent allegations, Kiser remembered when Sargent controversially said that institutional racism doesn’t exist within the Worcester Police Department in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

“That just shows he had a blind eye or didn’t tell the truth,” Kiser said.

Worcester city leaders have selected deputy chief Paul Saucier to serve as interim chief. Kiser and Hennessey said they hope Saucier will hold officers more accountable and stabilize the embattled department.