Sunday, June 23, 2024

An emergency assistance box in Harvard Yard. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Fourteen years after policing in Cambridge attracted national attention, the city’s two police departments are again considering improvements to how they interact with the general public amid calls for reform.

Attempts at change by the Cambridge and Harvard University police departments share similar traits, such as soliciting reviews from outside experts and appointing committees. They also operate under some very different parameters.

In 2009, the Cambridge Police Department came under scrutiny after Sgt. James Crowley arrested Harvard University professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. on the porch of his university-owned house.

The incident and the reactions it drew provided a type of Rorschach test for race relations in America. It also prompted the appointment of a review committee and a 64-page report, “Missed Opportunities,” that answered few pertinent questions.

Cambridge officials announced in late February several measures designed to increase transparency and public safety. Meanwhile, the HUPD and its advisory board is preparing to update a previous activity report that drew fire when it revealed a disproportionate arrest rate of Blacks, The Harvard Crimson reported in 2021.

More than a decade removed from Gates’ arrest, the looming question is whether the latest round of reports and committees are performative or a prelude to long-awaited progress.

Knee-jerk reactions to specific incidents have previously lacked the needed staying power. The time for change in public safety protocols is long overdue, said Stephanie Guirand, a researcher for Cambridge-based The Black Response.

“People really want there to be a solution, rather than academic discourse,” she said.

Cops and cameras

Then Cambridge police commissioner Robert Haas at a June 30, 2010, press conference releasing a report on the arrest of a Harvard professor. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Cambridge Police Department came under increased scrutiny after one of its officers shot and killed resident Arif Sayed Faisal during an incident Jan. 4 in which the 20-year-old college student wielded a long knife during a psychological episode in Cambridgeport.

Despite, multiple public protests, officials have said the name of the police officer won’t be released until the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office completes an investigation that could take at least six months.

City Manager Yi-An Huang has said disclosure of the officer’s identity could result in harassment of the officer who is a seven-year department veteran.

Last month, city officials announced several measures aimed at improving policies and transparency. The city also plans to outfit its police officers with body cameras like most – 60 percent – U.S. cities.

Faisal’s death came nearly seven years after then Cambridge police commissioner Robert Haas said U.S. police need to shift away from a warrior mentality to one in which they perform duties as guardians of the general public. “The people who most need and are most deserving of our services are the people who’ve been victimized by police in the name of trying to make the community safer, and that has made them feel disenfranchised,” he told the Cambridge Chronicle when announcing his planned retirement in March 2016.

It’s notable that Haas cited the Gates arrest as the event that prompted his reconsideration of conventional policing. The episode raised questions about concepts such as “procedural justice” and “police legitimacy” when acting as social agents, Haas said.

Harvard’s finest”

HUPD responded to the Gates arrest on Ware Street, a street two city blocks from Harvard Yard and dotted with Harvard-owned buildings. The rear of the property on which Gates lived includes a walkway connecting to Prescott Street that’s dominated by Harvard properties, such as part of the university’s faculty club.

After Gates’ arrest, Cambridge police implemented measures such as trauma-informed training, crisis intervention, policing the teenage brain, mental health first aid and managing aggressive behavior, department spokesman Jeremy Warnick has said.

What changes did Harvard make?

In August 2018, a university spokeswoman who identified herself in an email only as Anna, sidestepped the question by indicating the Gates arrest was an “off-campus incident with Cambridge Police” and didn’t involve Harvard – despite its police having personnel on the scene.

Just two years later, such questions could no longer be ignored when a clearly off-campus episode renewed calls for reform.

In early 2020, the Crimson posted a lengthy story detailing HUPD’s “toxic” culture of harassment and discrimination. Later in the year, Harvard officials ordered a review of the force after its officers were spotted monitoring a Black Lives Matter protest in Boston – far from campus.

The Harvard Alliance Against Campus Cops subsequently published a report called “Harvard’s Finest?: The Case for the Abolition of the Harvard University Police Department.”

Harvard’s 25-year police chief was subsequently replaced, an advisory board appointed and the department required to report activity data via what HUPD called its workload and crime dashboard.

The three-year (2018-2020) summary was reported by the Crimson in September 2021, indicating HUPD had been arresting Black people at a disproportionate rate.

The data showed that 37 percent of those unaffiliated with Harvard who were arrested by HUPD had been Black, although 10.8 percent of Cambridge residents are Black.

A follow-up report was scheduled to be updated last fall, six months ago. It’s now projected within 60 days. HUPD spokesman Steven Catalano attributed the delay to the additional time taken to include “the feedback we received in our review process.”

Unreachable board members

Harvard Executive Vice President Katherine Lapp said in 2021 the 13-person advisory board was formed to improve communication and transparency between the HUPD and the community. But Catalano didn’t respond to requests for an updated list of board members, and no members replied when asked to explain the delay.

To be considered credible, such panels need to operate with a level of transparency while assessing police procedures, said Jamarlh Crowder, a Boston-based police reform advocate.

“If there’s no way to reach out to that [advisory] group, that’s problematic,” Crowder said. “In a private institution it gets a little trickier because they’re private. They get to set their own rules.”

In 2019, Cambridge Day reported that Harvard officials didn’t participate in a series of remedial workshops the city conducted after social media captured in 2018 a university staffer making condescending comments to her neighbor. The employee’s target was a young mother tending to her mixed-race toddler outside her Cambridgeport apartment complex.

The Harvard staffer was placed on leave and the director of her department pledged to address such bias with additional training of university employees. One year later, neither the director nor Harvard officials were able to detail what, if any, training was provided.