Cambridge police may be ‘at the vanguard,’ but have never answered for acts in 2009

Cambridge police may be good. They may even be better than most in the United States. But the somewhat over-the-top praise heard for our officers in the past couple of months forgets some behavior from 2009 that the city shouldn’t be so fast to forgive.

The raves have come as city councillors looked at officers’ role in reclaiming a feeling of safety in Central Square and in City Hall, where an officer has been stationed to comfort municipal employees unsettled by potentially violent customers. (Other councillors, mainly Craig Kelley, have worried about the effect spotting a uniformed officer might have on undocumented immigrants or people of color paying attention to violent, often fatal encounters with police nationwide.)

“The way we do policing in Cambridge is very, very different from everywhere else across the country,” councillor Leland Cheung said.

“It’s not that we need to prevent people from feeling troubled by seeing a police officer – we need to give them more opportunities to interact with our police and recognize what policing in America could be if policing is based on the community and based in the values that I think Cambridge has … we’re at the vanguard, we’re leading that change, we’re trying to build what a police force should look like, and we’ve taken great strides in that direction. All due respect to the people who feel troubled, I think they should go and talk to our police officers and get to recognize that they are human beings as well who are dedicated to their job and dedicated to serving their community.”

Councillor Jan Devereux agreed: “I do believe our police are different. That may not be apparent to people who just see them as a uniform.”

We’ll just keep saying it. No matter how much the department has vowed it’s changed since the 2009 arrest of Harvard professor Henry L. “Skip” Gates Jr. on his own front porch – embracing community policing, conflict de-escalation, even mindfulness training – there’s no way to know it’s true because there are issues about that incident that have never been resolved:

bullet-gray-small Our police unions raced to form the notorious thin blue line around the arresting officer, refusing to allow for even the possibility he acted recklessly and wrongly.

bullet-gray-small The department’s Professional Standards division conducted a sham investigation. It spoke with a single actual witness.

bullet-gray-small The city manager and police commissioner at the time sidelined the City Council and citizen oversight board in favor of their own process.

bullet-gray-small Basic questions about what happened that day, when an elderly man was arrested for “disorderly conduct” after charges for burglary were knocked down, were never answered. Even the arrest had no basis in state law.

Are our police different? Maybe. Is it because they learned so much from the Gates situation? Maybe.

But the leadership has never spoken about that incident or its aftermath with candor and never admitted that its response was flawed and offensive.

It’s time for the unions to acknowledge that their responses were knee-jerk and irresponsible to the citizens their members protect and serve.

And on May 30, as Kelley’s Public Safety Committee explores “the role of police officers in the community,” installation of a Central Square police reporting station and the City Hall police detail, it’s time for our elected officials to ask police to come clean and clear the air, proving they really are “very, very different from everywhere else” and “at the vanguard” of what equitable policing should be.

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