Police commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr and City Manager Louis A. DePasquale end their testimony Monday at a City Council meeting.

A conversation about the police department’s military-style equipment was deferred by city councillors on Monday to a future meeting of their Public Safety Committee. The unanimous vote followed brief discussion that included police commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr.’s explanation of why he’d earlier said the department didn’t have any military equipment “at all.”

An annual inventory of police equipment required by city law and included in the Monday packet of council meeting materials showed a lot of equipment that is used by military forces, from weaponry to an armored vehicle. Confusingly, Bard said in a Monday letter to the council that he produced the list not because city law requires it, but in response to a June 7 article in the Boston Herald that quoted a Boston city councilor asking to see an inventory of equipment from Boston’s police force.

The list was produced June 11, Bard said. Yet when resident Xavier Dietrich made a public records request two weeks later to see it, he was told by the city’s public records access officer that “the city does not possess documentation responsive to [the] request.”

Also, according to Bard’s account, it was three days after he was inspired to produce the list and one day before he did so that he said to the council of his department: “We don’t get military equipment. We don’t have any – at all. We don’t have tanks, we don’t have anything like that.”

The Cambridge Observer posted a clip:

On Monday, he explained what he’d meant by that June 10 comment.

“I would never play semantic games with the council. When I said the department does not possess military materials, I mean it in the context that we do not possess materials that are restricted only to the military by law, and therefore exempted to civilian law enforcement,” Bard said.

Further, the department doesn’t participate in the so-called 1033 Program that gives military equipment to law enforcement agencies, Bard said.

“I understand that my words caused confusion, and I apologize for that, but it certainly was not my intent to mislead,” Bard said.

Weapons on the street

In his Monday letter, he gave a rationale for why the department needed “high-powered weaponry,” saying that at 9:54 p.m. July 2, the department’s ShotSpotter gunshot detection system picked up the sound of automatic gunfire from 108-110 Harvard St., in The Port neighborhood. (An initial report by police said officers were “investigating multiple gunshots after reports of fireworks and gunshot activity … at approximately 9:42 p.m.”) There were 50 rounds fired in less than six seconds, Bard said.

The recording was “from a mere three weeks ago right here in Cambridge,” Bard said, “not fired by Cambridge police, but by brazen individuals who have no regard for laws or life.”

“The fact that an automatic weapon could be deployed on the streets of Cambridge … means that it could also be deployed anywhere in Cambridge, including in the high school” or one of the city’s universities, office buildings “or in any business that calls Cambridge home and enjoys its relative safety,” Bard said.

Paradigm shifts

He pointed to two historical “paradigm shifts” in policing that led departments to add heavy firepower so as not to be “severely outmatched in terms of firepower” by criminals, though only one of the examples spoke directly to that argument: a 1997 bank robbery in North Hollywood, California, in which the robbers wore armor and carried rifles and other firearms more powerful than what police typically carried. There was no adequate place to hide and, over the course of 44 minutes, “many officers and civilians suffered serious injuries as a result of being struck with gunfire from the robbers’ high-powered rifles,” Bard said. “You cannot allow your law enforcement agency to be overpowered. It is not simply a matter of officer safety, but of public safety.”

The second example was the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where Bard said the attackers were free to act for around 49 minutes because at the time, police were trained to wait for a Special Weapons and Tactics team to show up.

Bard’s letter also addressed the armored vehicle owned by the department, stressing its value for rescue missions of various sorts, and the high-powered weapons in the department’s arsenal.

“It would be foolish to assert that the department uses no materials ever used by the military,” Bard said. “All of the firearms and rifles possessed by the department are able to be legally purchased – if not here in Massachusetts, then in neighboring states – and lawfully owned by private citizens. The mere fact that these weapons are widely available speaks to why a municipal law enforcement agency would also be required to possess them.”

Bard’s letter in full:

.

Off to committee

Councillors moved quickly to send the matter off to the Public Safety Committee, which is led by councillor Quinton Zondervan (and who made the motion to refer it). It was Zondervan and councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler who have written orders to redirect police funds and responsibilities to other agencies – including one Monday to give traffic enforcement duties to another department, which vice mayor Alanna Mallon used her “charter right” to set aside discussion on until September – and to see the accounting of police department property.

“There’s a lot in this report and a lot of other questions that I have, things to dig into about what the role of policing in Cambridge is and what role these equipment serves in different purposes,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said. “We can drill down to them. I don’t think we need to get into them at this council meeting.”

No date has been set for the committee meeting.


This post was updated July 28, 2020, to correct that councillor Quinton Zondervan made the motion to refer to committee.