Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A police watch over roadwork in North Cambridge on Nov. 8. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Two traffic and police issues were put on hold Monday after the removal of a request to look into trying unarmed traffic stops.

The call by city councillor Burhan Azeem made its first appearance a week ago among a slew of other police reform issues stemming from the Jan. 4 police killing of Arif Sayed Faisal in Cambridgeport and a fatal traffic stop in Memphis, Tennessee – that of Tyre Nichols, dead Jan. 10 after an attack by officers three days earlier.

The Feb. 6 order called for removing guns from traffic enforcement through “the implementation of automatic enforcement and unarmed” officers, but councillor Paul Toner used his “charter right” to stop conversation about it until Monday, when he proposed a version that removed references to guns and violence. “I’m trying to get to yes” on exploring automated ticketing, Toner said, “and there’s some pretty strong language in here that, if we’re talking about automatic traffic enforcement, I’d like us to just vote on automatic traffic enforcement.”

“I wanted to separate them so we could deal with both issues separately,” Toner said, later explaining that he had “submitted a separate new policy order for a serious discussion about police details.”

Other councillors supported separating the issues. It was suggested that having more clarity around automated enforcement would help Cambridge become one of 10 communities to test ticketing systems being proposed by state Rep. Steve Owens and state Sen. Will Brownsberger. A policy order Monday supporting those bills passed unanimously.

Toner’s late order around police details, however, didn’t address armed traffic enforcement. Police also make a distinction between traffic enforcement and police details, which involve off-duty officers watching over safety at construction sites or with private companies needing security. Those are paid privately, not by taxpayers, while the Cambridge Police Department has a taxpayer-funded 20-person Traffic Enforcement Unit that is part of its uniformed patrol division.

“This amendment is not so benign,” councillor Quinton Zondervan told Toner. “It doesn’t just split the issues, it also erases that concern about having armed police officers interacting with with drivers pulled over in traffic.”

Though he agreed with having two orders that let automated ticket be voted on alone, “if you do that, then you still need to capture the other issues that are being raised. And these amendments don’t do that,” Zondervan said.

Azeem suggested tabling his own order for a week so he could work with Toner, and all nine councillors approved the motion.

When Toner’s late order about police details was brought forward next, exploring such issues as whether there’s a community-safety benefit to sworn police officers working details and the pros and cons of them being armed, Zondervan used his charter right to end discussion.

This month was the council’s third try at talking about unarmed traffic stops after a July 27, 2020, order was paused over legal concerns and one Sept. 14, 2020, went no further than a Public Safety Committee hearing.

Like the latest, they have been inspired by black and brown driver deaths at the hands of police claiming a moving violation. Data from the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Mapping Police Violence from mid-April 2022 cited in The Guardian showed police nationwide killed nearly 600 people during traffic stops since 2017, including Patrick Lyoya, 26, of Michigan, who died in April after being pulled over for a mismatched license plate; Daunte Wright, 20, stopped in Minnesota for an expired registration tag and a hanging air freshener; and Sandra Bland, 28, who died in a Texas jail after police said she failed to signal a lane change.

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Riverbend Park and Riverside

Another stalled initiative Monday involved Riverbend Park, formed by closing the state’s Memorial Drive to car traffic. An order by Azeem sought to keep using the space near Harvard Square for recreation Saturdays and Sundays from the first weekend of spring until the last weekend of fall; closing Sundays only was the tradition until recently. Last year’s test of Saturday closings diverted new traffic into the Riverside neighborhood, where resident complaints have led to a tug-of-war with bicyclists, runners and other users of the open space.

“I don’t hear anyone talking about the quality of life that the residents have been enduring – the traffic, the sounds, the smells, the danger to our children,” said Sheila Headley Burwell, of Riverside, on Monday.

A charter right was invoked again, this time for Azeem’s Riverbend Park order and by councillor E. Denise Simmons, who said his he’d left her “sad and frustrated and weary” as the “lone black woman on this council” fighting for people often “carelessly, casually and dismissively brushed aside.”

Simmons told Azeem that “there were a number of people that were really put aback that you did this during Black History Month.”