Sunday, June 16, 2024

Cambridge police look over Donnelly Field in Cambridge’s Wellington-Harrington neighborhood on Thursday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Details about a May 23 exchange of gunfire at Cambridge’s Donnelly Field were shared Thursday at a community meeting where residents wondered what they could do to keep young people – and everyone else – safe from violence. And though many at the meeting worried about the state of the city, there wasn’t a widespread call for camera surveillance to aid law enforcement as was heard at a meeting in The Port after gunfire incidents in July.

The shootings last week resulted in two non-life-threatening injuries and one arrest – of a 23-year-old Cambridge resident who was first treated for his own wounds, then charged with carrying a loaded firearm without a license and other crimes.

More arrests may be announced soon. “This investigation is progressing very quickly,” police commissioner Christine Elow told the meeting at St. Anthony’s Parish on Cardinal Medeiros Avenue, a couple of blocks from the field in the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood. It drew at least 150 people, including city councillors and School Committee members, state Rep. Mike Connolly, city staff and several police officials.

The incident was not considered to be gang-related, police superintendent Frederick Cabral said, but just the result of “a dispute.”

The exchange of gunfire came during a night basketball game at the court behind the King Open and Cambridge Street Upper schools and Valente branch library. There were about two dozen Cantabrigians around the ages of 18 to 22 at the game, said city councillor Burhan Azeem, whose home overlooks the court. He recalled checking in occasionally on the action.

Filling in the details

City councillor Burhan Azeem tells a Thursday community meeting what he saw of a May 23 shooting. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Yonayvi Cruceta was at the game when he was “approached by multiple individuals,” Elow said, filling in the gaps of what Azeem didn’t see. After a brief confrontation, “an exchange of gunfire occurred. [Cruceta] allegedly discharged a firearm – so the victim shot his gun and was ultimately shot too.”

“I started hearing the shots go off,”Azeem recalled. “A lot of the kids started running – there were a lot of subsequent shots.” He left his apartment immediately to get to the court.

Azeem arrived to discover the other gunfire victim, a 22-year-old Cambridge woman. “She was bleeding from her leg … she was bleeding a lot.” Three of her friends stayed courageously behind, including one who explained that his mother was a nurse, took off his shirt and used it to make a tourniquet.

Two more residents at the meeting were part of the story too, as their triple-deckers were caught in the gunfire. “That night I had a bullet come through my living room wall,” one woman said.

Concern about profiling

A final revelation from that night left the hall in brief shocked silence: A teen who was out watching the aftermath of the shooting was approached by a Cambridge officer and told that “he looked suspicious,” said the boy’s mother. “They asked his name, he said his name, and my son was handcuffed and thrown up against a car.”

“So what made him ’suspicious’? His skin color? His hair?” the woman asked. “Are we going to do racial profiling? That’s very concerning and very upsetting.”

Elow said she was equally upset and wanted to talk with her after the meeting. Councillor Sumbul Siddiqui also came over to the woman to talk as soon as the meeting ended.

Though “any gun violence is too much,” Elow said, Cambridge doesn’t have a lot for a city of more than 118,000 people. There is a slight year-over-year uptick of four incidents so far in 2024 with the latest causing the only injuries; at this time last year there were two gunfire incidents, though the number of victims was the same.

Residents are worried, though. “I have noticed a change in Cambridge, and it’s not for the good,” said a native who lives across from Donnelly Field, while others said they felt despair growing and that there was “more rage, more anger.” Others said they saw more trash, more signs of alcohol use and more traffic, and a couple of commenters mentioned the hostility around bike lane installations, with drivers and bicyclists seething at each other.

Youth workers and other ideas

Kids play at Donnelly Field on Thursday as night falls. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Much of the discussion at the meeting focused on how to make people feel safer and to prevent more violence, and some of the ideas were specific to the field and the streets on each side, Berkshire and Willow.

“Willow is a very dark street. When I go down Willow, I run,” one teen said, proposing – and not alone in doing so – more lighting for the area.

A Friends of Donnelly Field neighborhood group was proposed, and ways to knit the community together (with Peace Commission director Brian Corr, who led the conversation, reminding people of the city’s $300 grants for block parties). Among the few young people at the meeting, some explained a plan to create a physical “safe place to hang out” for those age 17-plus that’s being coordinated through an organization on Inman Street called Buildingways.

An idea that resonated – if the number of officials suddenly jotting down notes was any clue – was to have a youth worker present for the “free-range kids” who continued hanging out at Donnelly Field after the Frisoli Youth Center there closes at 9 p.m.

The May 23 shooting took place at 9:39 p.m.

Police presence

Few people wanted to rely on the traditional model of calling police during, or after, a crisis. The “blue lights don’t make me feel safer,” one man said, wondering if there was an intermediate step. While the shooting was “heartbreaking and scary,” one teen said, “we would not want to feel more police presence.”

The police department is increasing patrols, but in the form of officers on bicycles, Elow said, inviting residents to call the non-emergency number of the department for interventions when tempers are running hot but no violence has taken place. “You’re going to see our officers engaging with our community members, building trust,” Elow said. “We want them to be a positive presence in our community. and not just there shaking down young people.”

Police were a presence Thursday at Donnelly Field, when the basketball courts were again in heavy use. A cruiser was parked prominently nearby, and a cluster of officers were off to the side with Kessen Green, director of outreach and community programs for the department, who had come by after the community meeting, During the brief visit, the officers were out of the way and seemed little noticed by the kids.

Charlene Holmes killing

It wasn’t missed that the same St. Anthony’s auditorium was used for a community meeting after a drive-by shooting on Willow Street very nearly 12 years ago: On June 3, 2012, Charlene Holmes, 16, died, and her friend Thanialee Cotto, then 17, was shot but survived, caught in the crossfire on the way back from the Central Square McDonald’s. The bullets were intended for a man referred to at the meeting as “a known drug dealer who was the subject of many police calls.”

“It’s hard to come back to this neighborhood under the circumstances,” said former mayor Anthony Galluccio, recalling that Charlene’s father had told her, “Don’t walk by that house, because somebody is going to shoot that guy.”

The deterrent is arrests, Galluccio said, but there’s been no arrest in the Holmes case.

Charlene’s killing isn’t unsolved, Elow said, just uncharged – meaning the perpetrator is known but the public could still help provide information to build a case against them. There is no statute of limitations on murder, she said.

Surveillance for the city

Mayor E. Denise Simmons asks participants at the Thursday community meeting whether they want surveillance cameras. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Galluccio and others raised the prospect of installing cameras that could be used by law enforcement to solve crimes – an idea that runs afoul of a local anti-surveillance law. That was put in place after city councillors were disturbed a decade ago by “software that would falsely ID people of dark complexion. We don’t want people to be picked up and stopped” because of race, Simmons said. “Ten years later, Big Brother is in your pocket.”

Now when crimes are committed, police seek out video from other sources, including private security cameras, dashcams and video-equipped doorbells. “Any Tesla that drives by, you walk by a camera, there’s a lot of footage already,” City Manager Yi-An Huang said. “We’re starting to have more of this conversation in City Council … and I think we have more of an understanding of what it means to protect privacy.”

A year ago, when neighbors in The Port clamored for more cameras as a way to protect themselves, it was easy to get them: They lived on private property managed by the Cambridge Housing Authority.

Citywide, it’s not just the surveillance statute complicating things. In the waning minutes of the Thursday meeting, Simmons went from person to person with a microphone and asked each to say whether they supported the installation of cameras on city streets. Yes. No. I’m on the fence. With controls. With conditions. I’m not sure. Yes, if the footage is used only if a crime is committed.

“This is how it’s gone,” Simmons said. “The conversation about cameras is very delicate.”