The Cambridge Police Department parked its 18,000-pound armored vehicle near a rally held Sunday in Lafayette Square by Black Lives Matter Cambridge. This photo is taken from the groups's Facebook page; click on the image to see the original status update.

The Cambridge Police Department parked its 18,000-pound armored vehicle near a rally held Sunday in Lafayette Square by Black Lives Matter Cambridge. This photo is taken from the group’s Facebook page; click on the image to see the original status update.

Cambridge police made a bad decision to bring a heavy-duty armored vehicle to a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally Sunday.

While hundreds gathered in Lafayette Square for music, dance, poetry and speeches, the police department had its retrofitted Ford F-550 BearCat parked nearby, with a crew of officers who looked similarly ready for battle in dark camouflage and heavy, black vests. The BearCat is an 18,000-pound, 10-person armored vehicle equipped with four-wheel drive, thermal imaging, radiation detection and its own air supply, meant to be used in “any potential situations involving dangerous subjects and/or hazardous environments,” a police spokesman has said.

Opinion boxFive police officers died in an attack Thursday in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter gathering – at the hands of a lone man on a mission to kill, and wholly unrelated to the group – but that does not justify the decision to bring the BearCat to a peaceful assembly. If the idea was to have it nearby but unseen by people at the rally, our police department failed to pull it off. If the idea was for people at the rally to be aware that the police had serious firepower nearby, the message is insulting and beneath the values of the department and city as expressed in a just-published letter about police policies by vice mayor Marc McGovern.

The concern is understandable from a police perspective; it was clumsily handled. On the Black Lives Matter page on Facebook, where photos of the vehicle appeared, people wondered what the police were thinking and advocated calling the mayor’s answer to complain. That makes it very clear that, at the very least, the police department should have talked with local leaders of the movement ahead of the rally to explain why the BearCat was wanted on the scene.

A message was left with police Tuesday inquiring about the presence of the BearCat at the rally, but there has been no reply. The department’s director of communications and media relations is on vacation.

McGovern is correct: Our police department does many things right when it comes to diversity, community policing and race relations.

But we shouldn’t forget that these things are, in part, to make up for the department’s failure July 16, 2009, and in the aftermath, when one of its sergeants arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. in his own home on an absurd charge that was later dropped. The department faked its internal investigation into the sergeant’s actions, and police unions did just what people have come to expect: form the “thin blue line” that reflexively protects fellow officers without really examining the situation to see if they acted correctly. (Poet and author Charles Coe addressed this problem in an essay Tuesday.)

In short, the last time the city had a serious race crisis, police flunked, falling in line with a tradition among city officials to never admit wrongdoing. It would be reassuring to believe that if the very worst happened – if a person of color was killed by a Cambridge officer in questionable circumstances, like has happened so many times across the country in the past years – that police would respond with the speed, transparency and sensitivity the situation demanded.

Bringing an armored vehicle to watch over a rally filled with prayer and hugs, and failing to explain why, isn’t a reassuring sign that would be the case.


This post was updated July 13, 2016, to more accurately describe the nature of vice mayor Marc McGovern’s letter about police policies.

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