Police records show use of force is on decline, with every incident justified when questioned
With a spotlight on police violence against black people, Cambridge Police Department reports on use of force by officers say the number of incidents has generally declined in recent years, although it’s been variable. Certain kinds of forcible actions, such as knee strikes, have increased. The reports don’t include the race or ethnicity of officers or civilians.
The reports were for 2016 and 2018 – the 2017 report wasn’t written because of “staff turnover,” department spokesman Jeremy Warnick said, but the 2018 document includes statistics for the previous year. The 2019 report has not yet been filed. Warnick provided the reports on request, and the 2018 one is posted on the Police Department website.
Officers applied force in 71 incidents in 2016; 76 in 2017; and 59 in 2018. The type of force ranged from simply laying hands on a civilian to using pepper spray to shooting a gun, although in all but one instance when an officer fired his weapon, the reason was to kill a rabid animal. In the one incident that involved a person, in 2016, an officer drew his gun while chasing a suspect and fired it unintentionally when he tripped over a park bench, the 2016 report said.
The department found that every use-of-force incident was justified, according to the reports. The reports said injuries to civilians and officers were mostly minor; one suspect who was “extremely combative and noncooperative with officers during his arrest and thrashed violently on the ground as officers attempted to handcuff him” suffered a broken rib in 2018. Two police officers who were “repeatedly assaulted” in one incident went to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries in 2016.
“The department consistently has all justifiable use-of-force incidents due to continued emphasis on training and policy compliance,” the 2018 report concluded. The decrease in the number of officers who used force and in certain types of incidents could be caused by “a number of factors, such as the increased focus on training to deescalate situations through communication before the use of force is necessary, or the rise in media attention of police officer use of force across the country resulting in criticism from the public,” it said.
One policeman, seven incidents
The reports include statistics but little detail. Warnick said incident reports would require a public records request to the city. The city law office says the 10-day limit for responding to records requests has been “automatically extended” while city offices are closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The number of officers who used force decreased between 2016 and 2018, as did those who were involved in two or more incidents. Still, some officers reported multiple cases when they used force on a civilian. One policeman had seven incidents in 2018, three in which he pointed his gun at a suspect.
Warnick said seven people filed complaints with the police department between 2016 and 2019, and one so far this year. The department substantiated one of the two complaints in 2016, and the 2020 complaint is still under investigation, he said. Otherwise, police were cleared of any misconduct, he said.
Police Review & Advisory Board
Another city agency, the Police Review & Advisory Board, was established in 1984 to provide independent review of complaints about police actions. The five-member board cannot discipline an officer but can make recommendations to the city manager about discipline or police department policies. In the PRAB process, the Police Department investigates all complaints to the board first; if the board disagrees with the department’s findings, the complainant can have a hearing before the board.
The board has received 40 complaints since 2014, including three for excessive force in that year. It can take months and even years to make a decision; four complaints from 2019 and three from this year are open, according to a docket provided by board executive director Brian Corr. The docket does not indicate the race of the officer or complainant.
Of those cases that were decided, the board has substantiated all or part of four complaints – none alleging excessive force. In another seven cases, the complainant agreed to some type of alternative resolution. In three complaints the board could not reach a conclusion. Six complaints were either withdrawn, filed late, or did not involve a Cambridge police officer.
When Corr was asked what the board recommended in the four substantiated allegations, instead of answering he referred the question to the city’s Law Department as a public records request.