Monday, June 24, 2024

Kessen Green, director of outreach and community programs for the Cambridge Police Department, speaks at a Thursday community meeting. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Residents of The Port neighborhood fed up with gun violence met Thursday at a Safe Streets, Safe City meeting and said they were calling for next steps, including signs putting trespassers on alert, brighter lights to expose wrongdoing and even surveillance cameras to solve or prevent crimes. 

“No one is going to save us but ourselves,” said Richard Harding, a community leader and former School Committee member, exhorting people in attendance to put pressure on the city staff and officials present in The Pisani Center. “We have to give them some direction.”

The meeting came after a fourth and fifth gun-related incident of 2023 in The Port, both Sunday and resulting in minor injuries of people who weren’t cooperating with police in finding who shot them, police commissioner Christine Elow said in a brief speech.

The Port has been troubled with violence and gunfire incidents for many years – even back to when Elow was a teen growing up in Cambridge – resulting in part from tensions with teens in neighboring towns such as Somerville, Everett and Malden, Elow said.

There was agreement from those present that steps such as surveillance cameras to watch over the neighborhood were necessary to stop the violence, though there have also been concerns this would cut against black and brown residents, especially considering cameras that are often bad at distinguishing between people of color.

A resident at Thursday’s meeting shows an example of the signs she wants to see posted Cambridge Housing Authority property in The Port. (Photo: Marc Levy)

“We don’t want to make people with dark skin a target for wrongful arrest” because of bad technology, said city councillor E. Denise Simmons, host of the meeting series.

It’s one reason the city has a surveillance ordinance that makes the introduction of such technology a City Council process, but – as with police body cameras, which residents have called for since a Jan. 4 shooting by an officer in Cambridgeport – wariness about the tech may be ebbing as new solutions are sought against violence.

There’s no reason The Port couldn’t be where the city tests surveillance cameras in a limited way before deciding on a broader rollout, Simmons said.

City councillor E. Denise Simmons introduces the community meeting Thursday at The Pisani Center. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The residents in the room would have to step up if they truly wanted cameras, city councillor Marc McGovern said, or other voices could drown them out when the time came for an vote.

The number of activist residents could yet be a problem, though; among the roughly 60 people in the room were several police, representatives of a new, unarmed Community Safety Department and community workers, city staffers, councillors and City Council candidates – putting the number of actual concerned residents in the room at perhaps half the attendance.

That may be because this was an “early” meeting, officials said, held before things got as bad as in some past years. A similar meeting was held in June 2018 after the year had already seen double the number of gunfire incidents.

Violence in The Port

Cambridge saw two nonfatal shootings Sunday – the fourth and fifth gunfire incidents of the year, all taking place in The Port. (There was a January shooting by police in Cambridgeport.)

In the first Sunday incident, police responded to Harvard Street near Davis Street at 3:50 a.m. on reports of hearing as many as eight shots fired. Minutes later, they heard from CHA Cambridge Hospital that a man had come in with gunshot wounds. That victim was later taken to another hospital by ambulance. 

In the second incident, a man walked into the hospital’s emergency room at around 2:30 p.m. with a gunshot wound to the hand, police said. Before being taken to a Boston hospital for treatment, the man said “he was walking down Market Street when someone shot him,” a police superintendent reported.

Before that there was a Jan. 9 incident in which two people were shot while sitting in a car on Washington Street; a May 7 incident in Greene-Rose Heritage Park in which people were sitting playing cards and someone came over firing a gun; and a third July 2 at Harvard and Davis streets in which people were parking their car when another car drove over so its occupants could fire into the first car several times, Elow said. 

Work goes on

There have been no deaths, but also no arrests. “We really need community support to get more information about where this violence is coming from,” Elow said. “We really need your help with that.”

One resident wondered why it took gun violence to get attention for The Port – yet Elow and her department’s director of outreach and community programs, Kessen Green, had just run through a long list of work, including cookouts, game nights, basketball tournaments, fishing trips and a gun buyback that brought in upward of 100 weapons that are meant as preventatives against violence and to connect police with the community. “As a department, we have been working really hard on preventative measures. We know we have to, to really build that trust,” despite so many Cambridge police officers growing up in the community, Elow said.

Another resident said she felt police patrols and Housing Authority security details had been cut back recently. Elow said that was not the case.

“We are absolutely directing our officers here. We have not stepped back any of our operations,” Elow said.

Call to action

Longtime residents of The Port identify themselves Thursday at a meeting in The Pisani Center. (Photo: Marc Levy)

As with the city councillors who say they can hear from different factions in the community around such things as surveillance and body cameras, a representative for the Housing Authority said administrators of the public housing were torn in different directions on the brightness of lights, aggressiveness around enforcing parking rules and how harshly to trim back trees to ensure CHA cameras can capture images consistently.

Harding scoffed. “I’ve never heard such bullshit at a public meeting,” Harding said, threatening to get a landscaper himself to trim trees to enable better surveillance and saying that the people who cared enough to show up to the meeting wanted brighter lights shining later into the night.

A next safety meeting was expected to be held Aug. 3, Harding said.