Monday, June 24, 2024

A police reporting station in Cambridge’s Central Square on May 19, 2021. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The long-awaited Procedural Justice Dashboard, a major Cambridge police department project since 2019, has arrived after repeated delays from staff shortages and technological barriers. Unveiled Aug. 15, the dashboard appears to have kept many – but not all – of its promises to shed light on police interactions with the public and examine them for racial bias. At first glance, the dashboard shows some racial disparities in arrests and traffic stops.

For example, dashboard data covering the period starting in 2010 show that arrests of black people far exceed their share of the Cambridge population, and the gap between arrests of black people and white people has increased in the past two years though overall arrest numbers dropped sharply. As for traffic stops, over the past five years, the percentages of black and Hispanic drivers who received a criminal citation was more than twice the percentage of white drivers who were criminally cited.

On the other hand, Cambridge police are making fewer arrests and giving out more summonses, a trend police department leaders have worked to achieve. “The Cambridge Police recognize that an arrest may not always serve as the best option, particularly when treatment and/or diversion are the obvious needs of the individual,” a statement with the arrest and summons data on the dashboard says. The pattern of more summonses and fewer arrests “over the past 15 years” is a result of a policy of giving a summons for “certain minor offenses” such as shoplifting, instead of taking a suspect into custody, the statement says. Another statistic, from traffic stops, shows that the percentage of black and Hispanic drivers who get off with a warning is about the same as the percentage of white drivers who have that result.

Police have hired a respected consultant on police reform, the Center for Policing Equity, to analyze the data and “collaborate with Cambridge PD to thoroughly examine the policing data, identify and call out any inequitable treatment of black people and improve policing outcomes for black communities in Cambridge through detailed recommendations for redesign and harm reduction work in its public safety system,” center spokesperson Juliet Pierre-Antoine said in an email.

Cambridge police are making fewer arrests overall, an online dashboard shows.

The free examination is called a “Justice Navigator Assessment,” Pierre-Antoine said. The consultant has asked for data on “vehicle and pedestrian stops, calls for service, crime and the use of force,” and has received “nearly all” of it, she said. There is no data on calls for service and crime in the dashboard, and use-of-force data covers only 2022.

The center will check to see if Cambridge has provided what was asked, then produce an analysis. The center’s reports examine police data in great depth. In one example, a report for West Hollywood, California, the center looked into the reasons for calls for service to identify situations that did not require an armed police response, among other analyses.

At a virtual public meeting Tuesday to present the dashboard and take feedback from residents, Police Commissioner Christine Elow said the department is awaiting the center’s report and meanwhile did its own “amateur analysis” of some data on the dashboard. Speaking of arrests, she said that more than one-third over the past five years were “warrant arrests” – people with an active order by a judge to be arrested, usually because they didn’t show up for a court hearing. Police have no choice about arresting someone sought on a warrant, she said.

She noted that the “pattern” of arrests of black and white people was the same whether police had no discretion or “low discretion” such as arrests for domestic violence, aggravated assault and drunken driving. “For me that offered a degree of comfort,” Elow said. But she was concerned to see the percentage of arrests of black people rise in the past two years, she said.

“A deeper look at ourselves”

This first iteration of the dashboard is just the beginning, according to city leaders and police themselves.

Besides giving the public “a deeper look at [police-citizen interactions]” the dashboard “also is for us to take a deeper look at ourselves,” Elow said at the virtual presentation. “I want it to be a lot more interactive,” she said. Elow also called for more information on incidents in which police used force; the dashboard includes only a written report for 2022, with bare-bones information on the race and ethnicity of suspects and none on officers. More work will bring “a more dynamic and robust dashboard as we move forward,” Elow said.

Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon, the primary voice on the City Council since 2019 pressing city and police officials to complete the dashboard, said she was “thrilled to see this outcome of a publicly accessible dashboard which is a commitment to transparency in policing and signals a willingness from the Cambridge Police Department to be more open about its internal data.”

Identifying areas for correction

Echoing Elow, Mallon said the dashboard “is in its early stages,” and will improve with “updated ways to convey useful information to the public.” Two colleagues, councillor Patty Nolan and Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui agreed, with Siddiqui saying: “The dashboard is a step in the right direction, and I look forward to it being developed further. The true utility of the dashboard lies in what we do with the information and how we identify the areas that need attention, and any corrective action.”

Councillor Quinton Zondervan, a critic of Cambridge policing, said: “I appreciate the improved transparency; for example, it allows us to see, at a glance, that we have a racist policing system in Cambridge, that is disproportionately arresting black and brown people. The existence of this tool will now make it easier for us to evaluate policy changes aimed at reducing the harmful impacts of violent policing on our community.”

Other city councillors didn’t respond when asked their reaction to the new report.

Unusual for its focus

Eric Piza, a Northeastern University professor of criminology and criminal justice and director of crime analysis initiatives, said Cambridge’s effort to examine unequal treatment was unusual. “Most [other data dashboards] are crime centered,” he said.

Public police dashboards in general “can foster communication between police and the public,” he said.

“I think this is a good first step toward reform,” Piza said. “It’s a little difficult to make changes if you don’t have data. What this shows is a commitment to better understanding and addressing those issues and to do that in a data informed way.”