Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Cambridge City Manager Robert W. Healy listens during a June 30, 2010, press conference revealing the findings of a committee he created after the July 16, 2009, arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The city manager repeatedly and consistently goes his own way on matters of public safety regardless of the wishes of the nine-member City Council, the policy setting arm of the city, a review by Cambridge Day shows.

The council has seen this in how Healy failed to staff the Police Review and Advisory Board, the citizen oversight board for Cambridge Police, and relegated councillors to a secondary role throughout the crisis brought on by the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in July 2009. There are also more recent examples, including never-answered questions about surveillance cameras and controversial police trips to Israel.

That final issue is among items lingering or languishing on the agenda for the Monday meeting of the City Council, which comes the night before city elections.

Along with the few items on the city manager’s agenda (one) and council policy orders (three), the meeting arrives with a significant amount of unfinished business: three items vetoed the previous week; eight otherwise tabled items; three items of unfinished business; and 69 items awaiting reports from City Manager Robert W. Healy and his staff.

But at least the the order about repeated police trips to Israel for anti-terrorism training, which have roiled the public and some councillors, is represented. The topic of surveillance cameras — which remain up despite council opposition dating back to February 2009 — is not; councillor Craig Kelley said he asked for a policy discussion about the cameras last March and asked councillors Denise Simmons, head of the Public Safety Committee, and Marjorie Decker for a hearing three times. In August, he formally asked for an update. There has been no update or hearing. Simmons has been asked to comment.

Police trips to Israel

Revelations that Cambridge officers were among 16 who trained last winter in anti-terrorism techniques in Israel drew a cascade of criticism from the public as well as Decker, who noted that the council had already objected to an earlier such trip only to see another one take place without notice. That prompted her request to Healy in March to report back in detail. The council is waiting.

Until Decker and the other councillors hear back, “funding for the delegation, the authorization and the relationship of the delegates and city officials to the funding agencies, the rationale for the trip and the substance of it, the role of private business in public policy, and whether any part of this trip was undertaken on public time” remain mysteries — no more clear than eight months ago, when first the Anti-Defamation League, then Central Square businessman Carl Barron, took credit for the trips.

Barron confirmed to Cambridge Day this week that he paid for at least parts of two trips as well as an earlier one involving then-commissioner Ronnie Watson. In an interview, Barron, 95, who over the years has won the unofficial title of “mayor of Central Square,” outlined his support for training public safety personnel in Israel — including training in October for the Belmont police and fire chief, as well as two Cambridge officers in late 2010, in addition to a trip in late 2008 for officers and the first, for the former police commissioner. A March 7 letter from Barron to the council said Watson, whose tenure last from 1996 to mid-March 2007, “was the first member of the Cambridge Police Department to participate.”

He declined to say what he paid in all cases, but his letter said “I volunteered to pay … all costs in this regard were contributed by me.”

The League also still says it sponsored the trips, though. Asked to explain, spokesman Robert Trestan wrote in an e-mail Friday that in the past 10 years, the group has taken four Cambridge police officers to Israel, including Watson.

“All costs, including travel, meals and lodging, are covered by ADL,” he wrote.

He did not answer what the trips cost or whether the number he cited includes or excludes the trips Barron says he paid for. Including all three known trips, at least five round-trip tickets to Israel, lodging and bills for the training would have to be paid.

Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas and a city police spokesman did not respond to inquiries about who paid for trips involving Cambridge officers or what the amounts were.

Barron was forthright about why he wanted to pay for the training. He cited “hundreds of threats” against the United State by terrorists, including those he called “native American.” He referred to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the trial of alleged terrorist Tarek Mehanna of Sudbury as well as the so-called underwear and shoe bombers. Good police work nabbed these guys before they did damage, he said.

“Steps taken in advance are well worth it to protect the U.S.,” he said. “Times have changed … so if these officers can be trained, then we are all protected.”

“There was absolutely no political or other intent,” Barron’s said in his letter.

Asked Thursday about the status of the issue, Decker said she was “not aware of a report.”

Decker questioned the timing of the story and said she would have more to say after the election.

Surveillance cameras

Cameras with at least two kinds of funding used in Cambridge have focused some public comment in recent years on an issue the cameras are supposed to deter — fear — including council discussion about cameras in April 2008, which focused on Russell Field, to a meeting this week about the MBTA adding cameras during work on the red line north of Harvard Square this winter.

Kelley said he attended this week’s meeting about red line work, which began Saturday and will close the Porter, Davis and Alewife stops nearly every weekend through March, and learned that the T plans to install several more cameras. He did not know how many.

Funding from the Department of Homeland Security and other sources paid for eight cameras to be controlled by the city and aimed at improving safety, but the council halted the installation in February 2009, citing public fears about what those cameras were “seeing.”

The timeline for those cameras:

On Dec. 15, 2008, a council policy order noted that citizens had expressed concerns over the reported installation of security cameras by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The city manager was to provide a full report by Jan. 19, 2009.

On Feb. 2, 2009, a council order said, “Public safety officials were hard pressed to convincingly illustrate why these eight cameras would enhance and significantly expand their abilities to keep Cambridge residents safe.” It also said the council “has only recently learned of the existence of these surveillance cameras, although the planning and infrastructure installation has been going on for a long time (four to six years, according to some sources).” The council ordered Healy to make sure the cameras not be installed in Cambridge.

A week later, the council asked Healy to report how and when the cameras would be removed.

More than 10 months later, on Dec. 21, 2009, the city’s database shows the council still awaited the report.

Two months after that, in February 2010, the issue hit the news. “To reiterate, the council voted to take them down. You have had ample time,” Decker told Healy, rejecting his explanation that he’d delayed the move because he first wanted to consult with members of the public safety committee and hadn’t been able to because of a delay in deciding who was leading the commission.

Three months later, in May 2010, it hit again. Healy explained again that he’d wanted to consult with the council’s public safety committee, prompting Decker to ask, “What would the fuller discussion be about? There are questions to be answered, but we probably have different questions: Why wasn’t the council informed? Why are they still up when the council voted them down?”

Then, more than a year later, a shooting in June put the issue back on page one and revealed the cameras remained up. This time, though, the council didn’t order them taken down again and expressed willingness to discuss adding more cameras — to lights already being installed in a high-crime area in North Cambridge.

Finally, there are Kelley’s current pleas for a hearing, which have not been addressed.

Healy has not responded to questions sent this week by Cambridge Day about the cameras or trips to Israel, nor does he have to respond to council questions on a specific timeline.

Kelley, whose votes on the council often reflect something of a maverick status, remains practical in his view of how Healy sees issues before the council. Kelley imagines Healy saying: “I’ve got a city to run … there are some things I just don’t get to.” And he laid the crux of the camera issue on the council as a whole for “not being aggressive enough to pursue the conversations involved.”

The Police Review and Advisory Board

The council created the Police Review and Advisory Board in 1984 after more than nine months of debate and fallout from a race scandal. As The Harvard Crimson described it:

Parents of 10 black youths accused police of an unjustified roundup of their children because they are black. The youths, aged 12 to 17, were arrested and booked in Central Square following a charge that two blacks assaulted a white bicyclist. Parents said the arresting officers did not allow any of the children to call their parents (police officials contend the youths chose not to call home, but were offered the chance to do so). Within just weeks, the police were involved in a similar incident of alleged harassment.

“The proposal is ludicrously weak,” Crimson editors said. “Although the ordinance would give the five-member panel power of subpoena to compel witnesses to testify in its investigations, its conclusions will not be binding on the police force. Furthermore, the city manager — the same person who appoints the department’s leadership — will select all the board’s members.”

That in itself has been a problem. The board is intended to have five civilian members but has gone long stretches understaffed, with a recent vacancy getting a candidate in April 2010 after going unfilled for more than 15 months. The interview process was said to be slowed by the lack of an executive secretary, a position that itself had been empty for a year at the time. Postings for the empty positions went up months after the previous holders had left.

“Our experience with this has been slow and drawn-out,” chairman Mertin Betts said at the time in discussing the filling of a board vacancy. “So if you’re looking for us to have a name by next month, I wouldn’t put a big bet on it. We have been through this before.”

Healy hasn’t rejected appointments suggested by the board, but he has been slow to approve them, members said. He has taken more than a year to confirm an appointment, they said.

The Gates crisis and commission

Police Commissioner Robert Haas speaks at a press conference July 23, 2009, announcing the creation of the Cambridge Review Committee — also called the Gates committee — as decided by him and Healy.

The Gates arrest took place while the board lacked a member and executive secretary, and so far as public documents and testimony show, the citizen-run police oversight board was never considered by Healy or Haas as a way to look into the incident or its aftermath.

“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,” city councillor Ken Reeves has said.

The police department’s internal affairs department did a scant investigation of the incident and ignored contradictions in the arresting officer’s report from the day of the arrest. And instead of turning to the existing board, Healy formed and chose members for a 12-member panel of national experts called the Cambridge Review Committee. It cost at least $241,360 and took some nine months to produce a 60-page report that was excoriated by councillors upon its release — as was the refusal by Healy and the committee to report to the council of its doings, even after multiple requests.

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 scoffed.

“This was not a cooperative work,” Reeves said.

“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 in the 2009 election to get information on the committee’s progress. Talking with the committee’s $127,000 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.”

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.

But the council could have expected that, based on the choices made by Healy and Haas to involve them and the mayor from the start of the crisis. The complaints made when the report was released were the same they’d been making since the start.

Denise Simmons remembered that, as mayor and called upon to answer to the media about the arrest, she seemed to be an afterthought. For instance, she was told less than an hour beforehand about a major press conference announcing members of the commission and releasing tapes of the 911 call that began the crisis, she said — decisions in which she had no role.