Police reports on use of force show a spectrum, with little deescalation; Complaints hint at bias
Cambridge police officers used their fists, elbows, knees and nightsticks. They used pepper spray. Several pointed their guns at suspects who turned out to be unarmed. In one case, police stopped a car, ordered occupants out at gunpoint, handcuffed them, then realized they had the wrong people.
These details come from individual use-of-force reports submitted by officers in 2018 and obtained by Cambridge Day under the state public records law. The Cambridge Police Department posts an annual summary of use-of-force incidents on its website for everyone to see, with 2018 being the most recent year online; the actual reports, available only with a public records request, give detailed descriptions of the force officers employed and, in some cases, the name, address, age and race or ethnicity of each person subjected to violence.
That’s not enough to determine whether police used force disparately against people of color. The city’s law office withheld 43 pages of documents because they involved complaints of domestic violence, sexual assault or rape. And reports in 10 cases when officers violently forced mentally ill people to go to a hospital for assessment had racial and ethnic information blacked out, as well as names. The same went for arrests of two minors.
A look at race in reports
With those omissions, officers used force against 26 black suspects, five Hispanic suspects and 18 white suspects in 2018. In addition, 10 people filed complaints against police between 2015 and early 2020. The individual complaints, also obtained under the public records law, don’t ask for the filer’s race or ethnicity. Several complainants alleged they were singled out because they were black and one person, a white woman, said she had seen police cruisers chasing a young black boy last summer near The Port neighborhood’s Sennott Park and trying to hit him with their vehicles. Police spokesman Jeremy Warnick said he had asked the city’s Law Department to advise him whether he can disclose the disposition of each complaint and the reason for it; the department hasn’t responded.
In several use-of-force incidents involving people of color – none involving white suspects – a traffic violation ended in arrest. In one case, a black cyclist riding the wrong way on a one-way street and biking on a sidewalk shortly after midnight was arrested after he wouldn’t produce identification, gave two different first names and kept his hands in his pockets, police said. Officers bent him over a wall, grabbed his legs, held his hands down and punched him in the back to handcuff him, a use of force report says.
The documents also describe violence and fury directed at police, including punching, spitting, cursing, biting and accusing officers of racism. (The officers’ race was not disclosed.) In at least one case officers went to the hospital. None were seriously injured, according to the reports. Neither were suspects, the department said in its 2018 report.
A lawyer’s analysis
Howard Friedman, a Boston lawyer specializing in representing victims of police brutality and misconduct, looked at excerpts from nine use of force reports at the request of Cambridge Day. “Most of this is normal except for the use of punches,” he said. Friedman singled out one case in which an officer punched a suspect in the head, dazing him, as especially misguided. “Hitting a person with a closed fist strike to face is improper. It risks injury to the suspect and to the officers’ fist. It makes the use of force personal and can result in an escalation. Blows to the face should be avoided absent an emergency,” he said.
Friedman also said that arresting the cyclist who committed a traffic violation exhibited “poor judgment.” In another case, when an officer investigating a vague report of trouble in a Harvard Square tea shop briefly handcuffed a man who had left the shop to force him to return, stopping the man was “questionable,” Friedman said. (The officer admitted in his report that he didn’t know if a crime had been committed, and the man was free to leave after an employee said there hadn’t been any trouble).
Finally, Friedman said: “These cases show the need for a different approach to dealing with people who are mentally ill.”
Warnick didn’t directly address Friedman’s comment on the wisdom of police using their fists. He said police training allows punches in the case of “assaultive subjects” and also as a “distraction” depending on the force of the punch. Punching is also permitted when police can’t calm down a suspect verbally, he said. Warnick cited a report by former Massachusetts Chief Justice Roderick Ireland finding that Cambridge police followed department policy when they subdued a naked black Harvard University student acting erratically on a traffic island on Massachusetts Avenue in 2018. The nationally publicized case included videos of officers punching the student. Ireland noted that the punches did not bring the man under control and he praised officers for stopping after it didn’t work.
Warnick quoted state law saying officers “may” arrest a cyclist who doesn’t provide identification after a traffic violation, but did not say why police decided on an arrest in the incident that led to officers using force to handcuff the black cyclist.
Warnick also cited several training programs established to help officers deal with mentally ill people, some not in place in 2018.
Aside from these statements, Warnick didn’t answer specific questions from Cambridge Day about 12 use of force cases. These included:
Police staked out a building at 625 Putnam Ave., Cambridgeport, on June 8, 2018, because of information that a suspected gunman, Shawndell Johnson, lived there. He was believed to be armed. Detective David Albert saw a black man he thought was the gunman get out of a car and enter the building; eight minutes later, the same man came out and got back into the car. “I believed the individual resembled the physical description of Shawndell Johnson,” Albert wrote in the use-of-force report. “I have not had any personal interaction with Johnson and I am only familiar with him from observing still photos from the shooting video and his booking photo from 2016.”
Police followed the car until it got stuck in traffic on Prospect Street and Bishop Allen Drive. Officers then drew their guns and ordered three occupants, including the man they believed was Johnson, to get out and lie on the ground. They were handcuffed. After a few minutes officers realized they had been mistaken, took the cuffs off and apologized. Officer Andrew Topouzoglou said one passenger and the driver asked to take a selfie with him. Albert said everyone was understanding, and the man who looked like Johnson agreed there was a resemblance.
Later, police arrested the real Johnson at his apartment at 625 Putnam Ave.
Hiding in a portable toilet
On Aug. 23, 2018, officers were looking in East Cambridge for Christopher Range of Rockland, who is white, because he had several outstanding warrants. Police had also received reports of a man “hopping fences” in the neighborhood. Officers came upon a locked portable toilet in the backyard of 434 Cambridge St. When the person inside didn’t respond, they began rocking the structure back and forth. Suddenly the door opened and Range burst out, strong-arming one officer who still managed to grab one arm and pin Range against the house next to the toilet. Range raised his free arm and clenched his fist, according to the use-of-force report. Another officer sprayed Range with pepper spray and a third punched him in the face, dazing him enough so he could be handcuffed.
Range’s lawyer tried unsuccessfully to have the charges dismissed, arguing in part that police used excessive force. Range pleaded guilty on Jan. 28, 2020, to resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer and was sentenced to three months, according to court records.
Dispatchers sent Cambridge and Harvard University police to a sixth-floor apartment on Sept. 15 for a person who had reportedly overdosed on drugs. They found a man pacing back and forth and yelling. He was bruised and had cuts on his back, arms and face and was holding a pen, which he dropped at an officer’s request. One officer told him to “calm down” but “it was obvious to officers that [name redacted] was unresponsive to commands,” the report said. Two officers took his arms to escort him downstairs to EMTs, but he became combative “within seconds” and an officer used a “leg sweep” to bring the man to the floor. After he bit one officer, a police officer pinned the man’s head to the floor with his forearm and the man was handcuffed. Police put a spit guard over his face to avoid the man’s spitting, the report said. The man’s race and ethnicity was redacted because this was a psychiatric case
On Dec. 4, police were called to Novartis Institute, the biotech company at 100 Technology Square, Kendall Square, to deal with a man who tried to enter the building repeatedly without a reason. The man, Jeffrey Deraville of Hanover, who is black, told an officer at one point that he “owned the building, wanted to be brought to the penthouse, and need[ed] to speak to the CEO,” a use-of-force report said. Officers said they “offered Deraville multiple solutions to every question he had [to] which he refused our suggestions and stated he was going back into the building,” another officer’s report said. Ejected from Novartis, Deraville went to Fidelity next door and guards turned him away there; he then returned to Novartis. Guards said he had threatened to knock out an employee, asked how the metal detectors worked, and “was making employees uncomfortable.” He also began taking his clothes off at one point, a report said.
After close to an hour, the three officers at the scene called in a sergeant, who also couldn’t convince Deraville to leave. They decided to arrest him for trespassing. He “stiffened his entire body” and wouldn’t put his hands behind his back. The four police forced him to the ground, where he landed on his chest, one officer fell on top of him and he was handcuffed. Part of the report was blacked out. Guards at Novartis thanked police, according to one report. According to court records, all charges against Deraville were dismissed on June 20, 2019.
More mental health crises
Ten use-of-force incidents involve people obviously in a psychiatric crisis whom officers decided to send to a hospital for evaluation. They resisted or didn’t understand what was going on. The reports didn’t describe any attempt to bring in mental health professionals, although some recount officers or EMTs trying to converse with the person before forcibly sending him to the hospital for evaluation. Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. has said he supports “creating an alternate or non-police response for appropriate non-emergency situations involving individuals experiencing mental illness.”
Bard has said paramedics and EMTs may supplement police; the reports say officers called paramedics to take mentally disturbed people to the hospital. The police department’s own trained mental health workers primarily try to prevent a crisis ahead of time by contacting families “in all mental health interactions” with police, Warnick said; they don’t respond to calls for service. Officers themselves get extensive training in mental health first aid, crisis deescalation and trauma, his statement said.
Details of other incidents in which police used force to arrest a suspect suggest that the person was in a mental health crisis, though officers treated it as a crime. An example was the arrest of Deraville.
Deescalation rarely mentioned
Police officials have said repeatedly that officers are trained to deescalate conflicts to avoid unnecessary arrests, and the department’s use of force policy calls for it. Most of the reports don’t explicitly describe attempts to defuse a tense situation; the report on Deraville’s arrest was an exception. In an incident that didn’t appear to include deescalation, a black man angry because officers were towing his car for a revoked registration became “verbally assaultive” and “was acting aggressively by waving his hands and talking in a very loud manner,” one report says.
The man apparently ignored an officer’s order to move to the sidewalk “for his own safety.” Police moved in when the man “touched his finger” to one officer’s chest; the man swung his arm backwards to avoid an officer trying to grab it. The ensuing portion of the sentence is blacked out.
One officer pinned the man against a police car hood and used a wrist lock “as trained in defensive tactics at the Lowell Police Academy,” the report said. (Officers often referred to their training in the reports).A wrist lock inflicts pain by bending or twisting the wrist. The man was handcuffed. He called the officers the N-word and added a profane taunt, the report says.
“Going crazy up there”
In another case, police went to an address where a white man was reportedly breaking into an apartment, had assaulted someone and was high on drugs. The person who let officers in said the man was “going crazy up there.”
Officers found the suspect breaking windows in a stairwell on a level below them. One officer ordered him to put up his hands. The suspect “immediately began to charge up the stairwell” toward the officers, the report says. He was “swinging his arms wildly at us,” it says.
One officer deployed pepper spray with no effect; the other sprayed the suspect when he grabbed the officer’s leg, the report says. The man tumbled down the stairs backward and was handcuffed. The suspect was “verbal and had no other complaint other than not being able to see,” it said. The man, William Umlah of Worcester, was jailed on $15,000 bail and lost an appeal to get it reduced. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of breaking and entering and was sentenced to 18 months of probation.
Dangerous driving charged
Cambridge Day also obtained details of 10 complaints filed against the Cambridge police since 2015. The city redacted the names of officers and complainants. Strikingly, all but two alleged rudeness, insensitivity or other subtle aggression, not improper use of force. Still, the written complaints described profound distress.
The white woman who said she had seen police cruisers try to hit a young black boy said she had been watching fireworks in Sennott Park from her doorway on the night of May 27 last year and was about to go back indoors when she heard the siren of an approaching police car. She saw the cruiser “barrel around the corner” from Harvard Street onto Norfolk Street. It stopped “within inches of a black boy crossing the street maybe 10 feet from the corner,” the typewritten complaint said.
The boy began running away and the police car pursued him at full speed, “trying to hit him,” the complaint said. The woman and two youngsters nearby screamed at the car to stop. Another cruiser approached and the boy, apparently seeing “there were more witnesses,” started walking toward the woman, when suddenly the second cruiser “accelerated at him almost hitting him as he ran past me.”
Many other cruisers arrived. The boy escaped as police focused their attention on the woman; she and the two youngsters were questioned by officers, who said “they had been searching for some people shooting off fireworks for some time,” the complaint said. Police appeared to pat-frisk one of the witnesses, a black boy with his hands up, wearing a thin T-shirt and basketball shorts that wouldn’t have hidden a weapon, the complaint said. An officer also disregarded the woman’s plea to stay a safe distance away from her because she had not brought her mask outside during the incident and was at high risk for Covid-19, the complaint said. A female officer gave her a mask.
“I was visibly very upset and vocalizing how wrong they were treating us as witnesses to police aggression which might have ended in violence if I as a young, white-presenting woman had not intervened,” the complaint said.
Pushed in the face
In the other complaint involving force, a black woman said an officer shoved his hand into her face when she and other pedestrians, whom she said were white, ignored the officer’s order to stop walking across a driveway in Kendall Square where construction was underway.
On Dec. 19, 2017, she was running late to an obligation that was redacted from her complaint and walking rapidly to the Kendall T station to take the red line to Charles/MGH, when a man “gestured to and told several of us pedestrians to stop for a truck about to enter the construction zone near MIT Medical,” the complaint said. No one stopped, and as she continued, the man “pushed me hard in the face with an open, gloved hand.”
When she asked why, the man “smirked and replied, ‘You walked into my hand!’” the woman wrote. She punched his arm and kept walking, she said. She cried on the train and when she arrived at her destination, and informed the head of her department, the head of construction at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the institute’s police chief and a retired Cambridge police detective, Richard Grassi, who she said found out that the man who assaulted her was a Cambridge police officer. (A former police detective named Anthony Grassi now works for MIT police, according to the Linkedin website). She did not learn the officer’s name, she said. The woman wrote a letter to then Cambridge mayor E. Denise Simmons; the letter constituted her complaint.
She said she was not surprised that a white man in charge of giving orders to pedestrians “would choose to react with violence only toward the black woman” who ignored his order. The police officer assigned to investigate her complaint questioned her description, at one point asking if it could have been an accident, and told her he was about to go on vacation and could not say when he would follow up, she said.
The woman wrote that “what that officer did to me continues to haunt me.” Her letter was dated Dec. 26, 2017, a week after the incident. She demanded a public apology.
Stopped in the bike lane
Other complaints allege more subtly troubling behavior; even so, people said they were shaken emotionally. In June 2018 a cyclist who described herself as a “youthful-looking middle-aged black woman” was riding near Porter Square in the Massachusetts Avenue bike lane toward Harvard Square when a police officer walked into the street and “it seemed he might veer into the bike lane,” her complaint said.
At the same time, a construction worker with his back to the woman entered the lane and traffic prevented the woman from going around him. She had to stop quickly and said “‘Careful’” to the construction worker, her complaint said. Despite the fact that she was stopped, another officer approached her and ordered her to stop.
When she asked if she could leave, the officer pointed to the construction worker and the other police officer, who were talking to each other, and according to the complaint said: “They’re talking about something important.” He then told her she had to “come to a full stop here like the cars.” The cars kept moving, the complaint said.
“I noticed he paused and continued to smile,” the complaint said. “He turned a closer gaze looking me up and down. His gaze fell toward the lower half of my body.” The woman was wearing a bike jacket and an “athletic skirt with shorts underneath,” the complaint said. “I felt really uncomfortable,” the complaint said.
After the woman asked several times if she could leave, telling the officer that “all I said was ‘Careful,’” the officer accused her of “telling me how to do my job” before allowing her to go. She said she reported the incident to then councillor Sumbul Siddiqui, now mayor, and then vice mayor Jan Devereaux.
Warnick, the department spokesman, was asked whether each complaint was substantiated or not, and the reason for each decision. He said Jan. 28 he had referred the request to the city solicitor’s office for an opinion on whether that information is public. There has been no response.