Rethinking Policing in Cambridge

Like you, my heart has been broken over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, and the countless other beautiful, Black lives we have lost to police violence and brutality. The peaceful protests across the country mourning George Floyd’s murder have devolved into, often bloody, altercations with the Police. Militarized vehicles and weapons better fit for war zones have been deployed in residential neighborhoods and city streets. Law enforcement officers have worn medical-grade personal protective equipment that our healthcare professionals haven’t had reliable access to in the past twelve weeks during a global pandemic with a rapidly spreading, deadly virus. 

Rightfully so, these altercations have evolved into calls for action at every level of government, demanding elected officials rethink our current policing models, and how we fund police departments. Across the country, government leaders are having deep conversations, making critical decisions on how they will ensure the safety of every resident, and the health of their communities moving forward.

Here in Cambridge, my colleagues and I have heard the impassioned cries for change, and felt the pain and the anger running deep through our community. And as former President Obama emphasized in his national address last night, most of the reforms required to prevent this type of violence and injustice need to take place at the local level. 

We on the City Council are exploring short-term and long-term ways to address systemic issues in the Police Department, in the hopes of better aligning with the “8 Can’t Wait” data-driven action items that could reduce police violence by 72%. By making the Police Review and Advisory Board more effective, creating more transparency by publishing data from the monthly CPD Comstat report on resident complaints and outcomes, having Officers wear body cameras to provide for greater accountability, advocating for changes in State Laws that keep Officers’ disciplinary actions and complaint cases out of the public eye, re-examining funding to increase non-police intervention by social workers, ROCA community outreach workers, and other community partners, demilitarizing Police equipment, and more, we can set the bar even higher for others and for ourselves on what an equitable Police Department looks like. 

In some ways, our Police Department is held up as a national standard on community policing: we have a citizen review board of the Police, and either fully or partially align with many of the 8 Can’t Wait recommendations. Not every one of these recommendations is codified in CPD’s policies though, and others need to be strengthened to truly be effective.

  1. Ban Chokeholds and Strangleholds: CPD’s use of force policy expressly prohibits chokeholds, strangleholds, any kind of carotid control, and manual holds intended to inflict pain or injury. However, this does not include manual holds for which an Officer has been trained in gaining or maintaining control of a detainee. What this means warrants further discussion.
  2. Require De-Escalation: CPD Officers attend mandatory training on de-escalation, and as someone who has attended one of these trainings, I can vouch for their quality. However, I am not sure where, or if, it is codified, and it needs to be expressly written as a policy requirement.
  3. Require Warning Before Shooting: Whenever practical, Officers must identify themselves as police officers when pointing a firearm at another person, and state their intention to shoot before discharging a firearm. The condition of “whenever practical” is ambiguous, and is worthy of further conversation.
  4. Exhaust All Other Means Before Shooting: Officers are required to use only the degree of force necessary in any situation, whether it be placing someone under arrest, placing them in protective custody, to bring an incident under control, or protect the safety of others or themselves. This policy should be updated to require Officers to exhaust all other means before shooting a firearm to codify this recommendation. 
  5. Duty to Intervene: CPD has no written policy requiring Officers to intervene when they witness a colleague use excessive force. This policy could have saved George Floyd’s life, and needs to be an expressly written policy all CPD Officers are required to follow.
  6. Ban Shooting at Moving Vehicles: Officers are not allowed to shoot into a moving vehicle unless the vehicle’s occupants are using it to exert deadly force against an Officer or a victim. In these cases, an Officer may discharge a firearm if the use of the vehicle presents an immediate threat of death or serious harm, and if there is reason to believe that shooting will not endanger an innocent person.
  7. Require Use of Force Continuum: This requires further discussion.
  8. Require Comprehensive Reporting: After an incident, all Officers on the scene must submit a report documenting their involvement, observations, and other relevant facts. If an Officer witnessed a use of force, they will be made available to give interviews and statements on the incident. However, transparency and accountability would be improved if this policy was strengthened to require reporting on the use of force to the City Council through the annual crime report, or the monthly Comstate report only the Police Commissioner currently has access to.

Being a national standard doesn’t mean we should stand still and complacently take no action, nor does it mean we are perfect. We must examine where imperfections lie, where comprehensive change can be affected, and where trust can be forged.

In his address last night, President Obama also noted that, to truly disrupt our unjust legal system and reimagine policing on a meaningful level, reform must happen in more than 19,000 American municipalities, and in more than 18,000 local enforcement jurisdictions. My promise to you is that Cambridge will be one of them.

But we can’t do that without you, our residents. A policy response that truly demands equity and justice requires your input. We need a community-driven response to strive together towards a Police Department that protects and serves all of us, without racial bias, without creating trauma, and without perpetuating a cycle of violence on our black and brown communities. And from the outpouring of local action in the form of protests, community organizing, engagement with elected officials I have seen over the past week, I know Cantabridgians are up to the task.

As a vital first step, Mayor Siddiqui, myself and Councillors Simmons and Zondervan are filing a resolution for next Monday’s meeting asking the City Council to declare racism a public health crisis. By institutionally acknowledging the ways racism permeates our schools, healthcare, housing, criminal justice system, and workforce, we will continue to build momentum and deepen a sense of urgency to dismantle oppressive systems. Next week, the City will also continue this critical dialogue with a virtual Town Hall on policing in Cambridge hosted by Mayor Siddiqui, City Manager DePasquale, and the Police Department. Residents’ questions on the Police Department’s policies on the use of force, body cameras, and transparency will be answered, and there will be an opportunity for community members to give public comment. More details will come in the following days. I hope to “see” you there.