Saturday, May 18, 2024

Members of the media stand by copies of a report on the July 16, 2009, arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at a special hearing Monday at Cambridge City Hall. CBS, NBC and The Boston Globe were among media on hand for the council’s lambasting of the report. (Photo: Marc Levy)

City councillors and members of the public blasted the report of the so-called Gates committee at a special hearing Monday, calling the 60-page report on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. a “shabby document” done in an “odd” way that left many feeling “profoundly underwhelmed” by failing to answer basic questions.

The report, by a 12-member panel called the Cambridge Review Committee that was formed after the July 16, 2009, arrest of Gates by Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, was released at a June 30 press conference after about nine months of work. The arrest drew international attention because of Gates’ fame, the fact he was black and Crowley white, and discrepancies between the 911 call for a potential burglary that brought police to Gates’ own home and the ultimate reasons for Gates’ arrest: disorderly conduct.

The June 30 press conference drew much media attention, and so did Monday’s hearing.

The city officials at the June press conference were the same ones who decided to form the $241,360 committee: City Manager Robert W. Healy and Police Commissioner Robert Haas.

That the City Council was getting a briefing on the report in October was indicative of how involved councillors were in the entire process, said councillor Ken Reeves, and the only reason the council got a briefing was because he and fellow councillor Craig Kelley asked for one.

Council members, then, didn’t respond well when committee member John Kosko, during his part of an hourlong presentation on the report, spoke approvingly of involvement from councillors and members of the public.

Councillors rejected that as untrue.

“This was not a cooperative work,” Reeves said, “and believe it or not, it is we who represent the people of Cambridge.”

“I expressed repeatedly during the process that I did not feel I was talked to,” councillor Leland Cheung said, recounting his efforts before and after being seated from the November election to get information on the committee’s progress. Talking with the committee’s community liaison, Jennifer Flagg, Cheung said he “was told the committee, which she didn’t have control over, had decided — in order to not politicize this — to not involve the council and to purposefully not engage with us. I did not have the opportunity to speak with the committee as a whole, although I did ask for that opportunity.”

“I am so profoundly underwhelmed by this process, and disappointed,” councillor Marjorie Decker said. “I asked to be briefed along the way. We were not kept in the loop … We had no voice on this. We were not briefed by the city manager. We were not briefed at that point by the commissioner, who I did call and who called back immediately, unlike the city manager.”

Praise for Haas, criticism for Healy

While Haas was complimented by councillors for his intelligence and willingness to reform his department, Healy and Flagg came in for criticism several times. Decker recalled a meeting with Flagg in which the community liaison didn’t have answers Decker was seeking and said later it was because the councillors were intimidating; Reeves said he’d asked about a member who’d dropped out of the committee but was assured by Flagg the member was still aboard. Later, Reeves found the person he’d asked about wasn’t listed as a member on the report. “How come I can’t get a simple basic truth in an exercise that wasn’t even requested by the council?” Reeves asked.

Haas appointed Flagg shortly after Gates’ arrest. Knowing Flagg from time together working for the state, Haas didn’t interview anyone else for the $130,000-salary, yearlong job.

Healy, who slumped deeper in his seat as the councillors’ hour and a half of questions and comments went on — and who left immediately afterward, as members of the public began to speak — took heat for his hobbling of the Police Review and Advisory Board, a group of citizen overseers that is supposed to investigate complaints against the department or individual officers. Healy appoints its members and executive secretary, but has been historically and notably slow to fill vacancies.

“The people of Cambridge are not stupid. They know PRAB has been destabilized … It hasn’t been there. If Gates wanted to go there [after his arrest], it didn’t exist. It was on hiatus, and I hold the council responsible for this, because we have known for way too long that the city manager, for reasons best known to him, is not trying to empower the Police Review and Advisory Board to protect the rights of the people,” Reeves said. “We let that happen. Not me, but we let that happen.”

The same point was made by councillor Denise Simmons and three members of the public — attorney Richard Clarey; Briggitt Keller, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project; and Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who said money spent on the committee and Flagg should have gone to PRAB because all people with complaints should have “an adequate body to go to. It should not take the appointment of a special, blue-ribbon type of committee.”

Although councillors Henrietta Davis and Sam Seidel said they largely agreed with their colleagues, they had gentler criticisms — Davis said the committee’s “process was odd to me; it was odd meetings happened in the library in the morning … it’s not the way we do public process” — or chose to instead ask questions about next steps. (Despite various questions about what comes next, and suggestions for more hearings, nothing was decided Monday.) Simmons was also soft-spoken during her time speaking. In the past she has spoken of being sidelined by Healy and Haas even though she was mayor during Gates’ arrest, including being told of a major press conference less than an hour beforehand.

While agreeing with other councillors that “we need better lines of communication,” Kelley also noted — despite clashing more obviously with Healy over the months and being the only member of the council to vote “present” instead of “yes” on the most recent renewal of his contract — that “under our form of government, the city manager runs the city. The rest of us give all sorts of advice.”

The process that denied the councillors a voice as well as basic information “may be a flaw in our structure of government,” Decker said.

Flaws in the report

Mainly, though, criticisms focused on flaws in the report. “What I don’t see in the report is accountability,” Decker said, while Reeves said more time was spent “assuring the police in the department that they would back the officer in question than was spent trying to resolve” unanswered questions from the arrest. Chief among those was how a 911 call describing two men of indeterminate race with suitcases turned into a police report of black men with backpacks.

“If this report isn’t going to discuss that, we need one that does,” Kelley said.

The incident between Gates and Crowley took six minutes “and I’d be willing to swear it took less than six minutes for the district attorney to throw it in a waste can, because the falsity of this arrest was so patent, the law was so clear, that there’s no way this matter could go forward,” Clarey said, echoing Reeves in saying Crowley lured Gates out of his home into public view for “a clear false arrest.”

“This report is a shabby document,” he said. “There is one sentence I appreciate. It’s on Page 33 [where Haas] considers the arrest ‘an aberration.’ Well, that’s consoling to hear. We spent I suppose a quarter-million dollars hearing it … We could have also avoided this statement on Page 9 of the report, where one of the recommendations is that the city create a police commissioner’s advisory board.”

The holdout in the torrent of criticism was councillor Tim Toomey, who missed much of the hearing but came in toward the end, shortly before the council’s regular meeting began.

“None of us are perfect,” Toomey said, explaining that he was interested in moving on from the issues surrounding Gates’ arrest and the committee report. “Hopefully all of us will move forward as a community and not continue to point fingers of blame.”

He hadn’t read the report, he said.