Saturday, April 20, 2024

A community meeting Monday at the Democracy Center in Harvard Square. (Photo via Catherine Melendez)

A parent unhappy about a police interaction with her son and other teens led a community forum Monday on “Policing in Cambridge” that she said was attended by between 50 and 60 community members.

After coming together at at The Democracy Center in Harvard Square, participants broke into smaller groups to share experiences with Cambridge police and brainstorm solutions to limit interactions from unwarranted 911 calls, said Catherine Melendez, one of the parents organizing the meeting. Youth turnout was high, she said, and teenagers presented possible solutions.

“We want to empower these kids to take a role and a lead on this as well so it’s not just the parents,” she said. “This is not about us trying to do this for them, but also them taking a lead.”

Police and media were asked to stay away to allow so people felt free to talk.

Melendez said she and the other parents are working on a second meeting on police reform goals. “There’s a strong sentiment amongst the community about the way the police approach certain situations as well as how [residents] would like to be treated by others in the community,” she said.

Though advertised as being about “clear problem with policing in Cambridge” after the fatal Jan. 4 police shooting of Arif Sayed Faisal, a 20-year-old Bangladeshi living in Cambridgeport, the meeting “shows how the racism and the prejudice that does happen here is small compared to the amount of community support that we have in Cambridge,” Melendez said.

Two calls to police

The meeting followed four boys being confronted by police at around 4:30 p.m. Feb. 26 outside the home of one of the teens.

Officers came to Remington Street in Harvard Square after getting “two separate calls” from neighbors “for a possible breaking and entering in progress” at a reported vacant apartment unit, said Jeremy Warnick, director of communications and media relations for Cambridge police.

Police were on the scene for approximately four minutes – long enough to learn that one of the teens lived in the area and that the group was filming a video to post on TikTok, Warnick said.

One of the three officers was “pushy” and asked the teens for identification, names and the reason they were in front of the apartment, while the other two tried to deescalate the situation, said Melendez’s 15-year-old son, who asked to remain anonymous.

“Have a conversation”

Melendez said she was outraged March 1 upon learning of the interaction and shared the story on Instagram. In the posted version, she cited one neighbor’s call to police and said “multiple officers responded.”

She believes “neighbors not knowing their neighbors” caused harm to the teenagers and criticized the police response. Because Faisal’s shooting was “still fresh,” the interaction with her son inflicted “secondhand trauma,” she said.

“We feel like racism was involved and people’s prejudice, and we just want to emphasize how wrong it is for something like that to happen and how dangerous and traumatic it could have been for these kids,” Melendez said in an interview.

In her post on Instagram, she encouraged people to “step out and have a conversation” instead of assuming children are criminals.

Captured on video

According to Melendez, who was given access to footage of the encounter from a nearby Ring doorbell camera, three teenagers froze with their hands in the air before the officers came into view and the friend they were waiting for emerged from his house.

The video shows one of the boys’ mothers coming out of her house to question the officers. The officers were unwilling to release the names of the callers or the intention behind them and left after advising the boys to stay away from the area, Melendez said. The mother brought the group inside the house to keep them safe.

Melendez said she took issue with how the police engaged with the teens and assumed they were suspects rather than evaluating the scene critically and responding more appropriately.

“These kids were interrogated, and at the end of the day, I feel like the caller should have been interrogated more and maybe asked more questions as to why the situation was threatening, because there was absolutely nothing threatening about the situation and nothing that implied that they were breaking and entering anywhere,” Melendez said.

Officials invite scrunity

Melendez’s post garnered more than 2,600 likes and nearly 180 comments online, most offering sympathy and criticizing the officers’ response. The Cambridge Police Department commented on the post, referring Melendez to the Professional Standards Unit to report the officers’ conduct and including a link for her to do so.

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui also commented on the post, offering an apology and promising to “follow up immediately with the commissioner [because] this should not have happened.” Melendez said she got a private message from Siddiqui afterward encouraging her to file a complaint against the department.

“I appreciate her reaching out,” Melendez said. “But I don’t know how much [the police] want change.”