Cambridge sent officers into Boston protests, but they used no force, commissioner testifies
Cambridge police sent 26 officers to Boston on Sunday after a protest grew violent, with Boston officers gassing and attacking citizens and some in the crowds vandalizing and looting businesses.
The mutual aid call ran from 11:30 p.m. to 4 a.m., with the officers used only “to secure vandalized but empty retail locations,” police commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. told city councillors on Monday. “The officers were there to ensure that no one else entered. And nobody attempted to enter during the time we were there.”
“No CPD officer reported having to use force,” Bard said.
The Boston protests are part of national and even international actions decrying police brutality against people of color.
Thousands were gathered peacefully for the third day of protests in Boston when, by the accounts of many, including journalists and Cambridge state and city officials on the scene, the violence began. “A beautiful, peaceful demonstration organized by young Black Lives Matter activists turned ugly when Boston Police started violently dispersing the crowd without warning circa 9 p.m.,” state Rep. Mike Connolly said online – drawing condemnation from the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which called his account “shamefully fictitious” in a Monday press release.
It was, however, the same story being told by countless others who were there, including city councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler. “I did see the police officers escalate the situation a number of times,” he said. “I’m glad to hear that Cambridge police officers weren’t among them.”
The seemingly endless tales of police violence against people of color nationwide, with names such as George Floyd of Minneapolis, Ahmaud Arbery of Georgia and Breonna Taylor of Kentucky being just the latest, had several councillors and residents concerned about how Cambridge police acted and reacted when a situation called for restraint and de-escalation.
No chokeholds, no tear gas
Bard said police have been getting requests for information about his department’s use-of-force policies, which he pointed to as being available on its website.
Among the policies, chokeholds are “expressly prohibited,” Bard said. And while Cambridge police don’t have tear gas, each officer carries a small canister of pepper spray at their waist – and though larger containers of pepper spray are available, the commissioner said that none have been deployed in 25 years.
In addition, when Cambridge officers provide mutual aid in other cities, as required by state law, they “are still under the auspices of the Cambridge police supervisors and they must follow our rules and regulations.” Among the officers in Boston on Sunday were a deputy superintendent, two lieutenants and a sergeant, Bard said. Similarly, Somerville police sent four officers and a supervisor during the peaceful demonstration and another four officers and a supervisor at 11 p.m. during the violence, said Somerville’s police chief, David Fallon.
There is “leeway” on sending officers away on mutual aid calls that is based on ensuring the safety of their own community first, Bard said. Cambridge got a call for aid at 9 p.m. but couldn’t reply because there were only “sufficient resources to protect Cambridge” at the time. Then, “based on the manpower that I had available after 11 p.m., I was able to provide mutual aid.”
Meanwhile, in Cambridge
That was when North Cambridge Officers started their overnight shift, opting to gather their 10 to 13 vehicles and meet in Harvard Square on Sunday rather than at their reporting station at Pro EMS headquarters in the Cambridge Highlands, said Jeremy Warnick, director of communications and media relations for Cambridge police. The decision was made “in large part due to the timing of the escalating violence that was transpiring in Boston,” Warnick said.
It was also shortly after a large crowd of people apparently coming back from the Sunday protests were seen in The Pit by the Harvard Square subway headhouse, according to a resident passing through the area. There’s no record of the gathering or of the two groups crossing paths, Warnick said, but on Monday the square seemed on edge. The CVS pharmacy closed two hours early, with police standing at its entrance, and the gates to Harvard Yard were locked against trouble for possibly the first time since the extended Occupy Harvard protest in late 2011.
The trouble, however, was in East Cambridge.
“About 3 a.m. we responded to an alarm at Best Buy at [the CambridgeSide mall]. We found individuals actively removing items from the store via a broken side window,” Bard said. The robbers made it their vehicle and eluded capture, but “we are working on that investigation.”
Cambridge and Somerville actions
A protest of 200 was held without incident Sunday in Porter Square, while later that day 53 were arrested Sunday in Boston. (Only one was from Cambridge and none from Somerville, according to police records cited by boston.com.) On Monday, city officials held a 45-minute online vigil before the City Council meeting, while a youth rally called “We’re Still Breathing” that had been planned days ago for 4 to 6 p.m. in Hoyt Field, Riverside, was canceled after Sunday’s violence. A new date hasn’t been announced.
There was talk online of a protest to be held at noon Tuesday outside Somerville police headquarters, 220 Washington St.
Though Cambridge is a famously liberal city with a police force that generally reflects progressive values, it is also a “full-service” force with a proposed budget of $66 million and 329 full-time employees that includes snipers and handlers of bomb-sniffing dogs, as well as the dogs themselves, bomb-disposal robots and at least one armored vehicle. In 2016, some were displeased when police chose to park an armored vehicle by a peaceful Black Lives Matter gathering.
Order opposes bad practices
A late policy order Monday passed unanimously by the council supported U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley in condemning and ending police brutality, racial profiling and the use of excessive force.
Speaking as a co-sponsor, councillor Patty Nolan said, “We have to support every single measure we possibly can to bring accountability from police officers, who we need to protect us and who are too often acting outside the bounds of what we know is just. In particular, it is black lives … caught up in this system.”
Councillor Quinton Zondervan, who said that as a person of color he had been “treated very roughly” by police outside of Cambridge, noted budget conversations picking up Tuesday allowed an opportunity to transform policing in the 21st century.
“Clearly, it can’t continue the way it has,” Zondervan said. “We have to go beyond the platitudes and the pretty words [of this late order] and really dig deep into what we expect of our police force and what their purpose is – and why we are spending millions of dollars on being over-policed.”