Monday, July 22, 2024

A protest and press conference is held July 29 in front of Cambridge City Hall in response to the July 16 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. The city’s response remains an issue, as seen at Monday’s meeting of the City Council. (Photo: Michael Borkson)

Complaining of a lack of information and results from the committee formed after the racially charged arrest of a Harvard professor, city councillors rejected — for now — the city manager’s request for $31,360 in committee expenses.

That was just the beginning of councillors’ questioning and rebukes on matters of public safety and homeland security Monday at their regular meeting.

The Cambridge Review Committee, made of a dozen members from around the country and a communications expert based in Cambridge, was funded for the year for up to $210,000, according to City Manager Robert W. Healy, with $130,000 of that being the salary of the communications expert, Jennifer Flagg. Its mission is to look at broad police procedures, not to address the July incident, in which the black Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for disorderly conduct at his home by a white police officer.

The charges were dropped five days later, after the incident became fodder for nationwide debate, but people remain curious why there was an arrest after the officer knew a “break-in” at Gates’ home was just Gates dealing with a sticky door. Later it was reported arresting officer Sgt. James Crowley was seeking a “black” suspect although the 911 caller did not say she’d seen a black man at the home.

The bulk of the money Healy asked for Monday is to reimburse committee members’ travel expenses, and he said it was available because two police department positions were left vacant for a while after promotions.

Councillor Sam Seidel, however, put the expenditure on hold by exercising his charter right, essentially a veto that cannot be overridden during the meeting in which it is used. His comments — that he was hearing “a strong desire for the [the committee’s] conversations to be held out in the open and be inclusive” — were the mildest heard from the council.

“I don’t want to stymie any good-faith effort, but if someone asked me what I would do with $210,000” it wouldn’t be the Cambridge Review Committee, councillor Ken Reeves said. “I just don’t believe the council set anyone on this mission.”

“I’m not going to vote for this expenditure. In all the expenditures in 21 years that I have spent here, this is one on which I absolutely disagree, because I do not understand one would have a commission to not answer the question that is obvious. It does not make sense to me,” Reeves said.

“I share his concerns,” said councillor Marjorie Decker, who recalled one meeting held long ago about the committee. “I have not heard a peep since then what this committee is about … I won’t vote for this tonight. I need more information. This committee may be doing great work, but I find it hard to believe it’s doing such great work and the council doesn’t know about it.”

Surveillance cameras still stand

Equal anger was heard during discussion of a $5,306 grant from Boston for travel and training for Cambridge rescue workers. Although the money was approved unanimously, finding it listed under “Homeland Security” was a red flag for councillors who’d asked months ago for nonfunctioning surveillance cameras to be taken down from around the city.

“It was asked directly, do these cameras make us safer? No. Do these cameras enhance your ability or understanding of [how to evacuate the city]? No,” Decker said, noting the civil liberty concerns the cameras raised and that Healy entered into a regional Homeland Security pact and installed the cameras without council involvement. According to sources in the police department, she said, the lack of consultation was “intentional.”

“To reiterate, the council voted to take them down. You have had ample time,” she said, rejecting Healy’s suggestion he intended to consult with members of the public safety committee — a committee that, with the delay in appointments caused by the lack of a mayor, hasn’t been seated.

Kelley’s concerns

Healy found further frustration on a couple of the other six police-related matters arising Monday.

Councillor Craig Kelley questioned $39,000 to be used for staffing on seat belt and drinking-and-driving citation enforcement, saying in his own experience and in the anecdotes of others on traffic and safety enforcement, police may be “doing more — I just don’t think they are doing enough.” The attempt to take away money came up because “I just don’t know what else to do” to force a conversation about proper enforcement, he said. Aside from Reeves, though, councillors were not convinced, and the money was approved 7-2.

When a $19,316 expenditure to fight youth and gang violence came up, Kelley argued again — in what he acknowledged was something of a side issue — on how well police communicate with a neighborhood after violence. Police canvass the area for witnesses to a shooting or stabbing, he said, then disappear and leave neighbors uncertain and anxious.

In this case, after having his say Kelley voted with the eight other councillors to approve the funds.

In both cases, Healy expressed exasperation with Kelley. In regard to traffic enforcement, Healey said data over traffic enforcement are available showing rising more stops and citations and fewer accidents, and “I don’t know what else to do … I don’t know what else I can say … I don’t know what I can do to convince you.” On how police communicate after a crime, Healey told Kelley that “the reality is, now you have an investigation. There is no new news to convey to the neighborhood other than now there is an arrest. You don’t want to canvass neighbors to say, ‘We don’t have any more to tell you’!”

Although police say their community policing efforts are unchanged, the seeming lack of community policing — police behaving as a constant presence in and member of a neighborhood — has been a theme in law enforcement discussions over the past several months. (Decker lauded the force Monday for doing “a really great job” integrating themselves into the community during a spring spike in violence.) The force has been without a public information officer since Officer Frank Pasquarello was promoted out of the position in October after three decades.

The deadline for submitting resumes for a full-time, permanent replacement for Pasquarello was Thursday, according to Emily Wright, one of the two Northeastern University interns who have served as police spokeswomen while the public information officer role has been empty.

In the final police items before the council Monday, there were unanimous approvals given $380,000 to fight violence against women and $75,000 to reimburse the medical expenses of police injured in the line of duty.