Monday, May 20, 2024

Members and staff of the Police Review and Advisory Board gather Wednesday with the public and media in Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Members of the Police Review and Advisory Board expressed frustration Wednesday over issues surrounding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. — an incident that took place seven months ago but remains a fixation for the city.

Three items on the agenda for the board’s monthly meeting concerned Gates, a black man arrested by a white officer July 16 on charges of disorderly conduct. The charges were dismissed, but not before the incident became a national flash point.

The board is investigating, but chairman Mertin Betts said Wednesday to members of the public asking about progress, “If you have two people that do not come to talk about that issue, there’s a problem. There are two people in this case who will not speak to anybody,” he said, referring to Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer. “We’re put in a situation where we have to look at other ways to address this thing. You can’t force them to talk.”

Visitors Bishop Filipe C. Teixeira, of the Immigration Pastoral Center of the Brockton-based Diocese of St. Francis of Assisi, and King Downing continued to ask questions related to the Gates case.

“Gates is not the only case we have here,” Betts finally said. “We have other cases on the board.”

No investigating

But Gates-related issues were all that was discussed during the extended public comment session — more than a half-hour, instead of the usual 15 minutes — and the four board members and new executive secretary, Marlissa Briggett, later heard a report on a Feb. 11 forum on “Policing, Discretion and Race” and from Jennifer Flagg, of the Cambridge Review Committee. Both resulted from the Gates incident.

The Review Committee is focused on “broad lessons” arising from the Gates incident, not on the incident itself, said Christine Elow, a deputy superintendent with Cambridge Police who serves as commander of its Professional Standards unit and as a liaison, consultant and adviser with PRAB. Professional Standards essentially polices the police and is synonymous with what many refer to as Internal Affairs divisions.

She confirmed Wednesday after the meeting that Professional Standards has not and is not looking into Crowley’s behavior July 16, although the unit has looked into other incidents of possible racial profiling when a complaint has been filed. A question of whether that complaint must come from Gates went unanswered as she and board members left the Inman Street offices for the night; but the board launched an investigation without a complaint from Gates.

In his description of the “Policing, Discretion and Race” forum, board investigator Joe Johnson noted the many stories of unprovoked police stops told by the black panelists, which included a pastor and police commissioner. No formal complaint of those incidents was filed with the board, Johnson said.

That made sense to Teixeira, who told the board he and a young friend were stopped Sunday in Cambridge. “Just by crossing the street we are stopped by the police and asked for ID and why we were in Cambridge and so on,” he said. “This is happening. I think the police are angry and they need to be talked to … If this board is going to be alive and well, it needs to look into those issues, even though you might not have a formal complaint. It’s become an illness.”

“I did not file a formal complaint,” he said.

Progress report

Flagg said the most recent meeting scheduled for the dozen committee members, who are scattered around the country, was canceled by bad weather and grounded flights, although members later talked by phone. The March meeting has yet to be scheduled.

Police Commissioner Robert Haas and City Manager Robert W. Healy will get a progress report from the committee “most likely this week,” Flagg said. “I’m anticipating the commissioner and city manager will be releasing that to the public as soon as they’ve had a chance to look at it.” When it’s released, the report will be available on the police department Web site.

It’s likely to contain feedback from the public gathered at meetings held in late January, but Teixeira and Briggett agreed the meetings were “sparsely” attended, while the forum on police discretion and race — Johnson described it as also addressing “the perspective of Cambridge, and how it’s perceived after the incident” — drew about 200 people.

Another gap was obvious when Elow said her unit’s 250 annual attempts to get feedback about police officers got “overwhelmingly positive” reports, but that returns were from “an overwhelmingly older population, and overwhelmingly white.” And when a board member told Teixeira he and his friend should carry cards outlining their rights when stopped by police, Teixeira told him the cards were as harmful as they were helpful.

“When a young man of color, or anybody, actually, says ‘I know my rights,’ automatically there’s a conflict,” he said. “Last Sunday when I said to the police, ‘I know what you’re doing,’ that was the end. I should just be quiet. When you talk back, that’s the problem.”

He and Downing agreed people who feel they’ve been racially profiled by police won’t come forward to complain if even a rich, internationally renowned Harvard professor such as Gates can fall victim without repercussions or a real investigation.

“Except that lack of faith in the process already exists,” Downing said. “The focus on Gates draws attention from people who generally don’t get any attention.”