Friday, June 14, 2024

A protest walks to Cambridge police headquarters June 20, 2020, calling for redirecting some law enforcement funds to social work. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A late round of questions about non-police emergency response failed to sway most city councillors Monday from asking the city to fund and work with Cambridge’s own Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team.

Councillors voted 7-1-1 in favor of delivering grant money to Heart – Covid-relief money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act that has been slow in getting to all named recipients – and negotiate a contract so its workers can be called to scenes of crises that don’t need armed police officers.

Heart will be ready in the fall to take calls, leaving plenty of time for a contract to be negotiated with Cambridge’s new unarmed Public Safety Department, councillor Patty Nolan said. She and councillor Quinton Zondervan said minor changes to the Monday order had been done in discussion with the organization: Spelling out that Arpa would be the source of funding; that Heart would “respond to some – not all, but some – 911 calls”; and that this would happen only “after dialogue and development with the city of the metrics for readiness.”

The official voting against the amended order was Paul Toner, and the one voting “present” was E. Denise Simmons – the signers of a Dec. 22 letter to City Manager Yi-An Huang expressing concerns.

The letter referred to Heart as an “untested, outside and unaccountable group” that, instead of being named with a favored status, should be limited to bidding on a typical city-issued request for proposals along with any interested unarmed-response team.

“We do have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens,” Simmons said.

A discussion Monday with the city manager showed that the pair’s focus on bidding was misplaced, councillor Marc McGovern said. The city is allowed to contract with a nonprofit for services without putting that contract out to bid, and Heart is a nonprofit.

Organization support

The organization got its start in 2020’s summer of protest after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other people of color at the hands of law enforcement. Cambridge and other cities faced demands to defund police departments and put the money toward social workers who could handle more crises without weapons. Though the city prioritized its own unarmed Department of Community Safety proposed at the same time, Heart continued to train and fundraise, generating significant support from councillors and residents.

During public comment Monday, there were 20 speakers supporting the organization and the policy order calling for its funding.

Noting she was a 40-year resident, Marilyn Frankenstein said she’d “testified over and over – it feels like for 40 years – and sent letters to the council in support of Heart. Frankly, I’m just not sure why we have to keep testifying when the benefits of Heart to our community have been made so very clear over and over.”

Oliver Wilson attested also to speaking repeatedly in support at a series of meetings. “Each time several new people come forward with stories about dramatic dehumanizing and too often lethal encounters with the Cambridge police. Tonight is no exception,” Wilson said. “Heart has enormous community support.”

McGovern, who co-chaired with Simmons the task force that recommended a Community Safety Department, said he supported the policy order because he knew there would be people who “whether that department sits outside of the police department or not, aren’t going to feel comfortable calling on a city agency government agency when they need help.”

Letter warns of confusion

How Toner felt about that was muddled: While he said Monday that he supported having an alternative response program but with city-set parameters and had “nothing against Heart per se,” he also had “major questions not just about Heart, but about the alternative response program” as a whole. The letter he wrote with Simmons says that “outsourcing public safety to Heart or any other outside contractor could potentially undermine the trust and relationships that have been built over generations between the members of the Cambridge community and the police department.”

It could “sow confusion” among the public about the role of police and could “generate negative feelings toward the Police if it is felt that they are the department that is only brought in to ‘bring the hammer down’ on residents.” The letter to the city manager also said that if the city bid out the work of unarmed response and Heart didn’t get the contract, its supporters “could be deeply disappointed.” They might sow distrust in the process or “could otherwise seek to puncture public confidence in how this process has been handled by the Purchasing Department and by your office” and in whatever agency did wind up getting the contract.

A co-founder of Heart, Stephanie Guirand, replied to the councillors in another public letter: “If we are not awarded a contract with the city, then we are not awarded a contract with the city,” Guirand wrote. “We would work with community members who want Heart’s services.”