Monday, July 22, 2024

An image of an Oct. 30 demonstration outside the offices of Elbit in Cambridge from the Instagram account of a user called ignorerocknrollheroes. Click to see the original post.

A call for Cambridge police reforms such as “eliminating the department’s military weapons arsenal” came before the City Council by coincidence shortly after protesters learned armed officers had been stationed on a rooftop overhead before an expected rally.  

During the Monday meeting’s public comment period, the activists referred to police “pointing snipers at citizens in Central Square peacefully exercising their right to protest a weapons manufacturer.” A two-part response was given to councillors by department commissioner Christine Elow that argued that the officers were not snipers and were there for the protection of protesters, not to threaten them.

Police also get a bird’s-eye view of crowded events as peaceful as the annual summertime Dance Party in front of City Hall, Elow said, and planned to have an overhead view Thursday of another in a series of actions at Elbit, an Israeli company that has been the target of protests for several months in Cambridge. “Intelligence” suggested it could be as violent as one Oct. 30 that resulted in nine arrests and that “there was some concerns about counter protesters,” Elow said.

Elow acknowledged to councillors that the expected protest “never actually materialized.”

A photo from Thursday shown to Cambridge Day and referred to during the Monday meeting shows two officers on a Prospect Street rooftop overlooking the Elbit offices. Two guns lean on a structure several feet away.

Two days later, there was a “Block Elbit Block Party” that was peaceful and drew no counter protest.

“The protests that they had over the weekend, we didn’t have that same response. We knew who was going to be there. We knew that it was going to be peaceful,” Elow said, and so apparently did not have officers on the roof Saturday. “We didn’t have the same intelligence for the Elbit protest on that Thursday.”

Officers, not snipers

The officers are not snipers, Elow told councillors.

“It may sound like I was splitting hairs. We don’t have snipers like that’s what they do – we have officers that are trained in a number of different disciplines. We had officers from our Special Response Team that were up on that roof,” Elow said. “We had a number of different tools up there. And one of those tools was a patrol rifle.”

The distinction was perplexing to some, but independent journalist John Hawkinson tweeted that Elow told him Monday at City Hall that “the officers on the roof had a rifle but it was not set up or deployed … which is why they were not snipers.”

Stationed as a defense

Departing councillor Quinton Zondervan, whose final order was to introduce the call for police reforms, said he understood “being prepared and positioning people so you can oversee the crowd and communicate that information down below.”

“But then the notion that we would anticipate a need for rifles on that roof and think there’s some situation where it would make sense to discharge those weapons, that just blows my mind,” Zondervan said.

Elow raised again the potential for counter protesters and violence from outside the group protesting Elbit. “We have seen incidents where people with shotguns, with rifles, have attacked innocent people in a crowd,” Elow said, describing the department’s thinking: “Okay, we have this big event, this is very tense, the emotions are running high … for us, it’s just preparedness. We want to make sure if somebody has any ill intent to do anybody harm, we’re ready to respond to that. That was really the intent of having all of the tools that we had available for that particular day.”

Armored vehicle, not tank

The department’s 18,000-pound, 10-person armored BearCat search-and-rescue vehicle was brought up by councillor Marc McGovern for similar reasons – to correct a reference to it by public commenters as an armored tank “to use against our community” that had once been deployed at a Black Lives Matter protest in Cambridge: “Cambridge Police took out that very tank to scare protesters to keep us in line. That is not search and rescue,” resident Corinne Espinoza said. “That tank has to go.”

The BearCat does not fit the dictionary definition of a tank, McGovern said, and its appearance around a Cambridge rally in July 2016 followed the death of five police officers in an attack a few days earlier in Dallas during another Black Lives Matter gathering. (The officers were killed at the hands of a lone man on a mission to kill, wholly unrelated to the BLM group.) “God forbid something had happened at any of these events – the Dance Party, even a protest – and people died and we weren’t prepared,” McGovern said. “People would be saying the police failed.”

The order that passed Monday was not exactly Zondervan’s, because an amendment by Patty Nolan voted through 8-1, with Zondervan opposed, softened the language. Instead of calling on the police to “fundamentally change how it responds to situations that could lead to violence and death,” it calls for the department to “review and consider” such things as limiting or eliminating when officers go to calls lethally armed; reducing how many officers carry firearms; and avoiding foot pursuits. The final 5-4 vote for the amended order had Zondervan, Nolan, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and councillors Burhan Azeem and Dennis Carlone (like Zondervan in his final meeting as councillor) in the majority. Opposed were vice mayor Alanna Mallon (also in her final meeting) and councillors McGovern, E. Denise Simmons and Paul Toner.

Department adopts reforms

The department’s Special Response Team had been formed under former commissioner Robert Haas to keep other police forces out and ensure that actions were taken the Cambridge way, “very intentionally using the least amount of force that we have to,” Elow said. Under her predecessor, Branville G. Bard Jr., military-style camouflage uniforms were banned and 20 percent of the department’s heaviest-duty inventory of weapons were destroyed, she noted.

While crediting the department for being open to reforms – including some still underway since the fatal police shooting of Arif Sayed Faisal on Jan. 4 – Zondervan said his order was “asking the question, well, can we reduce weapons by 30 percent? Fifty percent? Eighty percent? How low can we go?”

Not enough councillors were convinced, though, and they welcomed Elow’s explanations and reforms. “You’re not entitled to your own facts, and we’ve seen that demonstrated right here as my colleagues query ‘Did we have snipers?’ and police commission Elow says, ‘No, we did not.’ And it’s unfortunate, because when people say those things they’re picked up as truth. That’s very, very problematic,” Simmons said.

“On the whole, the facts tell us that the Cambridge Police Department is not like Minneapolis or Los Angeles or Chicago or even Baltimore,” Simmons said. “It’s really unfortunate that we have folks that want to paint the Cambridge Police Department with the same broad brush as those police departments that are corrupt and brutal and oppressive.”