Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Cambridge Police Department officers are promoted Monday at City Hall. (Photo: City of Cambridge)

As with police departments nationwide, Cambridge struggles to hire officers while staying active in an array of enforcement, outreach and other work from combating a drug crisis to tamping down fights in schools, leaders said at a March 26 budget hearing.

The department has proposed a budget of $80.9 million for the 2025 fiscal year starting July 1 – a $2.5 million or 3.2 percent increase from the current year, staff told city councillors on the Finance Committee. That covers initiatives from the past five years including the addition of a cadet program and Northeastern Police Academy participation, an emerging adult diversion program and the creation of a procedural justice dashboard to let citizens watch over who’s being arrested and how they’re being treated.

The budget increase is driven mainly by nondiscretionary salary and benefit increases for a department that hasn’t seen a change in headcount since 2020 – a problem when it comes to keeping up with calls, police commissioner Christine Elow said. Officers can come in for an eight-hour shift and are told they have to work an additional eight-hour shift.

“Every police department that I know, at least in the state of Massachusetts, that is civil service – they are struggling to hire,” Elow said.

Cambridge has nine people in the police academy, significantly fewer than the 26 potential hires the city had hoped to get. Three officers left, two transferring to the Cambridge Fire Department and one to another police department. The results for the most recent civil service exam will be out in July. This year 45 residents applied, and the city will also be looking at the veterans list and a new non-Cambridge residents list, Elow said. The department needs about 30 additional people to get to full staffing, and there are also large numbers of people who will soon be retiring.

“The people that used to become police officers in the City of Cambridge have all left. That robust middle class that were police officers, back in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, they’re all gone,” Elow said. Even a salary of $100,000 that would be excellent in other communities can fall short of what an employee needs to live in Cambridge.

Comparing Cambridge and Somerville

A presentation by Manisha Tibrewal, the department’s director of planning, budget and personnel, answered a question raised in past years: why Cambridge’s police budget is so much higher than that of neighboring Somerville.

It is partly due to a different approach to funding, including that Somerville’s Department of Public Works is responsible for maintaining the police fleet and other infrastructure needs, whereas in Cambridge this is under the auspices of the department itself and alone accounts for 25 percent of the police budget. Additionally, Cambridge police salaries are about 15 percent higher than in Somerville, the result of collective bargaining reflecting what has been a higher cost of living.

Cambridge has more residents – 122,000 versus 82,000 – but also many people who come in to work. “We have 40,000 extra people in the city who come every day as employees. Those employers are here, and we have to provide them with some services,” city councillor Patty Nolan said. Cambridge police responded to significantly more service calls: In 2022, CPD responded to 106,000 calls versus 43,000 in Somerville.

Drug enforcement

With drug crimes drawing public attention in recent years, Mayor E. Denise Simmons asked department officials about the allocation of resources around enforcement. “Do we need a drug task force?” Simmons asked at the prodding of constituents.

Cambridge police have been arresting more drug dealers, Elow said, but want to be able to get people who are primarily drug users and not drug dealers into treatment programs. “We understand how the drug enforcement of the past has not necessarily led to any rehabilitation,” she added. “We have task forces that are out in the middle of the night in our squares doing drug enforcement and making arrests … the ones that are coming in and causing harm, they’re going to jail.”

Staying atop drug crime is complex, officials said, part of the issue being that Cambridge does not control what happens after an arrest. “We can arrest somebody, but that doesn’t mean they stay incarcerated – or are incarcerated. Very often they’re turned back out by the courts and they’re back on the street,” vice mayor Marc McGovern said. “It’s a whack-a-mole kind of thing,” as even if a drug dealer is arrested and jailed, another person will come to take their place.

“It’s not a crime to be mentally ill, it’s not a crime to be addicted to drugs, it’s not a crime to be homeless,” Cambridge police superintendent Frederick Cabral added.

Presence in schools

Councillor Ayesha Wilson asked what is being done about violence in Cambridge schools. “Is there enough of our officers in these spaces?” she asked. She pointed out a growing trend in youth violence across the region, such as fighting that occurred at Brockton High School this year.

Cabral said Cambridge is hoping to be able to provide at-risk teenagers with access to advanced therapy before they commit a crime that previously was available only to youth involved in the court system. But kids who land in the juvenile justice system are seven times more likely to end up in the adult justice system down the line, so being able to help teens before that point would be an important preventive measure, he said. Cambridge has also created an emerging adult diversion program to help get those aged 18-26 off the path of lifetime criminality.

Body cameras

CPD expects the wearing of officer body cameras to begin in the coming fiscal year, costing $800,000 before dropping to $500,000 in subsequent years.

“I would just love for this to move a little bit faster,” councillor Burhan Azeem said. “It’s been a very long time since we passed this. I think that body cameras, in my mind, were the simplest, most straightforward thing that we could have done. Other cities do it – it’s not new, it’s not novel, a lot of our peer cities already have them,” he added.

Cambridge Day wrote more about the body camera procurement process in December.