Sunday, June 23, 2024

Cambridge police gather Thursday at Massachusetts Avenue and Exeter Park for a crash reconstruction exercise. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The city agency established to provide independent oversight of the Cambridge Police Department, the Police Review and Advisory Board, quietly relinquished one of its few powers long ago: the authority to investigate citizen complaints against police officers. As a result, the board has relied on the police department itself to look into complaints filed with the board since 2004, executive secretary Brian Corr disclosed last month.

The 1984 ordinance creating the board authorized it to hire investigators and required it to investigate citizen complaints against police “immediately.” Nevertheless, the board “made an arrangement in 2004 to have the Professional Standards Unit of the Cambridge Police Department conduct investigations on behalf of the board because of their access to all necessary information and their policies and procedures for conducting thorough and complete investigations of complaints,” Corr said in an email Feb. 9.

Corr didn’t know details of how the decision to make the “arrangement” was reached, saying he started working as executive secretary in 2010. He offered a copy of a January 2004 letter from the then-executive director of PRAB to the head of the police department’s internal affairs unit saying that the review board “is not in a position to investigate citizen complaints at this time” and the city manager, then Robert Healy, “agrees that your office will primarily investigate citizen complaints against the police department.” A complainant could appeal if the police department decision favored the police, the letter said.

Not long afterward, in October 2004, Healy proposed amending the ordinance to permanently eliminate PRAB’s right to investigate complaints and issue subpoenas; he failed to win approval, according to a history of the agency in a case study by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Still, the board does not investigate complaints on its own and leaves that job to the police.

About half the 230 police oversight boards in the United States have a model similar to Cambridge’s, in which the board reviews police investigations, and about 15 percent conduct their own investigations, said Cameron McEllhiney, executive director of the national group. She said boards can have independence despite relying on police to investigate, “as long as the review is happening in a fair and thorough manner and the board is getting access to information they need to do that fair and thorough review.”

No hearings in 10 years

Corr said the police department’s investigations “have provided the necessary information the board needs to make its decisions,” but the agency can request additional facts if it wants. The ordinance also allows the board to hold hearings or refer a case to a “fact finder” if a complainant, board member or police officer is dissatisfied with the results of an investigation. Corr said the board has not held a hearing in at least the past 10 years.

Regardless of any findings, the board can only recommend action to the police chief or city manager; it has no authority to discipline officers or change police policies.

Overall, of 53 complaints filed since 2014, only five resulted in allegations being substantiated. But a meeting of the board Wednesday provided surprising context, with the police commissioner and the head of PRAB saying they were dissatisfied with merely examining whether a police officer had broken department rules.

Encouraging a different way

PRAB chair Alexandra Fallon said board members had felt uncomfortable deciding “cases where there’s no violation of policy but things could have been done differently.” Police commissioner Christine Elow, who attended the three-and-a-half-hour virtual meeting, agreed. “Disproportionately the complaints we’re seeing now are rude and discourteous” behavior by police, she said, and “nobody walks away from that satisfied” regardless of whether it’s an officer who’s cleared or a citizen whose complaint is substantiated.

The board and police department could work together to develop “a way of communicating to our officers,” Fallon suggested. Speaking earlier in the meeting about an incident when officers barked loud orders at four black teenagers suspected by neighbors of a break-in, Elow said: “How do we get officers to know they can be safe and not scare people?”

The fatal police shooting of Arif Sayed Faisal on Jan. 4 is not before the board; it did examine the 2009 disorderly conduct arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., who is black, by a police officer responding to a report that two men were trying to break into a home – it was Gates’ house and he had been locked out. Civil rights activists had complained to the board about Gates’ arrest. The board did not fault the officer but recommended changes in training and a look at disorderly conduct arrests where the only victim is an officer.

Cambridge Day obtained copies of six complaints to the board since 2020, along with police investigation reports, under state public-records law. The police department’s professional standards unit found officers at fault in two cases and could not reach a conclusion between conflicting accounts in one case. In 2022, all three complaints were filed by the same person, stemming from disputes with her landlord, neighbors and friends; investigators cleared police in those cases. The city withheld records of one complaint filed this year because it is under investigation.

Injury at a bar

The more recent cases in which officers were either faulted or that were inconclusive involved complaints ranging from rudeness to a bystander and unjustified handcuffing of a young black man trying to see his mother’s dead body, to a traffic stop for delaying 15 seconds after the light turned green. The complaint and investigation documents were redacted heavily to hide not only the names of complainants and witnesses, but addresses; it was not always clear what had been blacked out.

Names of businesses were also hidden, even when their identity might be relevant. In one complaint filed in 2020, a man alleged that police didn’t fully investigate what he said was an assault by a bar “bouncer” that seriously injured him. Police and the complainant gave conflicting statements about what appeared to be a confusing situation, but one thing was clear: Police never wrote a report of the incident.

Sgt. Philip McDavitt of the professional standards unit faulted officer Steven Burke for violating a police department rule requiring officers who respond to calls from a “licensed establishment” to “document their response when the cause for the response has a direct nexus to the establishment.” The reason for requiring a police report is so the licensing commission can contact the customer to investigate the incident, McDavitt said.

The complainant had alluded to this, saying in his complaint that license holders don’t want to cooperate with police because they view police reports as a problem for their business. Because the city redacted the name of the bar or restaurant where the incident occurred, it isn’t known whether the licensing commission was ever informed or followed up.

Distraught son handcuffed

A screen capture from a widely released video that raised concerns about police actions Wednesday in Cambridgeport.

Another case in which the department substantiated a complaint involved a televised incident in July 2021 when officers handcuffed a young black man in Cambridgeport to prevent him from entering an apartment where his mother had just died suddenly of cardiac arrest. Numerous neighbors filmed the event as the distraught man shouted and tugged the entrance door to the apartment building. (He was eventually allowed to view the body in back of the building as funeral workers prepared to take it away.) Local station WBZ-TV broadcast a story. Supporters of a non-police response to calls where a person is in mental distress have cited this incident as an example of police inflaming and worsening the situation.

A neighbor who was filming the interaction filed a complaint with the police review board, saying an officer tried to discourage her from recording, was rude and didn’t identify himself; she also questioned why the young man was handcuffed. In this case the police department’s professional-standards unit found that officer Joshua Buxbaum had been discourteous, unprofessional and dismissive to the woman, had discouraged her from filming and did not identify himself despite promising to do it “later.”

The investigation found no fault with the decision to prevent the son from entering the apartment to see his mother’s body, including handcuffing him twice, although the report said the legal basis for denying access was shaky. “While officers had noble concerns regarding limiting Covid-19 exposure by not allowing [redacted] into [redacted], their legal status to deny him access without first consulting [redacted] was questionable,” the report said. The context suggests that police should have consulted the resident of the apartment where the mother died before barring the son from entering.

Warning over a green light

The third case in which the police investigation didn’t fully support officers involved a traffic stop that did not even result in a citation but felt outrageously unfair to the driver. He was given a warning for obstructing traffic after an officer said the driver waited 15 seconds after the light turned green before moving.

The man’s complaint to the board said he was at a red light on Cambridge Street at Prospect Street in May 2020 and noticed two officers on motorcycles close behind the car in back of him, “and I expected they were in a hurry to get somewhere.”

“So when the light turned green, I drove with one eye ahead and one watching the rearview mirror for blue lights,” the complaint said. Sure enough, the blue lights came on and he pulled over. Talking to the officer, he denied doing anything wrong, but made the mistake of saying “What’s wrong with that?” when the officer said the driver had waited 15 seconds to go after the light turned green.

The officer wrote the warning for obstructing traffic. The driver “would have liked to engage in quiet conversation about this incident,” he said in his complaint, but the officer “just turned and walked away, saying ‘It’s only a warning. Later.’”

The man said he had received only one speeding ticket in his life, in 1980, and was complaining as a matter of principle. “I have nothing whatsoever to gain personally from making this complaint,” he wrote. “I am making this complaint for the safety of my city of Cambridge, for the safety of my Cambridge Police Department and above all for the safety of citizens who are less able to defend themselves than I am.”

“I hereby state categorically that I did not obstruct traffic … I submit that more old Boy Scouts should report small travesties to prevent big ones,” he wrote. “That is my only motivation for making this complaint.”