Note: I submitted this Communication for the June 8, 2020 council meeting.
To the Honorable, the City Council:
Policing as we know it evolved from slave patrols and is a fundamentally racist institution. The tragic murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests across the country serve as another reminder that we need to fundamentally rethink the role of policing in our society. As Chair of the Public Safety Committee, it is my intent to hold hearings that center Black voices and chart a course to transformative change. This Communication lays out some of the steps and approaches that could be taken at the municipal level.
Re-allocation of Funding
The FY21 proposed Police Department budget totals $62 million, including a $4.1 million increase from FY20. This means the Police Department makes up almost 9% of our operating budget, the largest department outside of Education. While the proposed budget does include several initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence and preventing criminal behavior among young people, it also contains many millions of dollars for traditional violent policing and equipment including a $1 million cost center for a tactical operations unit, which is generally the most militarized component of a police force.
Traditionally, we have responded to criminal activity among young men by increasing the policing of them. Often, these young men are left behind in our traditional education, artistic, and athletic pathways to economic opportunity, creating immense pressure for them to fall into a potentially violent and deadly criminal lifestyle. While the Department has implemented some programs in an attempt to disrupt this cycle, including even some that have been moderately successful, not enough is being done and we continue to lose too many of our youth to violent crime and incarceration. Police-centric programs also come with their own inherent limits, since once down a criminal path a certain distance, the individual becomes potentially unreachable this way. The response of adding more and more violent policing into the mix through reflexive annual police budget increases, without sufficiently addressing the underlying socio-economic risk factors, has allowed generations of young men (often Black) to fall into a life of crime that becomes difficult to rescue them and society from.
Meanwhile, our very successful youth programs like the King Open Extended Day program remain shockingly underfunded and limited in scope, despite their demonstrated success and potential for assisting in the education and wellness of our youth. Many opportunities remain in our budget to better support young people, especially Black youth. With the final budget vote coming up on June 15, it is not too late for the council to call on the City Manager to better fund these programs and to reduce the police budget correspondingly. Specific areas to consider for increased funding include the many initiatives in the Human Services Department, our summer youth programs, the RSTA program at CRLS, Project Elevate and other efforts to recruit more teachers of color, providing better mental health services for young people, and many other ideas that can and should be sourced from the community and those who have been historically most impacted by our racist and anti-Black approach to education and economic opportunity.
The Cambridge Police Department does not currently use body cameras, although they have done other things to reduce incidents of excessive force. Body cameras can increase accountability by creating an objective video record of an incident from the perspective of the officer. While cell phone recordings of incidents have become prolific, body cameras can provide consistent footage that is more credible in a courtroom. They do come with significant privacy concerns, however, which must be addressed as part of any policy and implementation.
I support the effort of my colleagues to move forward with a body camera program in the Cambridge Police Department. However, we should be cognizant of the fact that such a program will ultimately have a limited impact, and to the extent that body cameras give us comfort in continuing to fund and expand traditional policing methods, they will be counterproductive to efforts of deeper and more transformative solutions.
The ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts have provided extensive guidance on how to craft an effective body camera policy. Key considerations from this guidance include:
- The need to avoid continuous recording while at the same time blocking officers from selectively determining which encounters are filmed. Body cameras should not be used as general surveillance tools, but allowing for officer discretion undermines any benefit that the cameras might bring. Special consideration should also be given to encounters involving domestic violence and rape in order to protect the identity of the survivor.
- The need to create consequences for noncompliance with body camera recording, including direct disciplinary action against the officer and the disallowment of verbal evidence in favor of the officer that otherwise could have been verified if the camera had been turned on, except in situations where the officer couldn’t reasonably have turned on the camera or where other verifiable forms of evidence exist.
- The need to implement privacy considerations at the point of recording. The ACLU recommends limiting cameras to uniformed police officers and marked vehicles only, and requiring that officers notify people that they are being recorded. Additional consideration should be given to instances in which police officers enter someone’s home, particularly in non-exigent circumstances.
- The need to incorporate policies related to retention and use. The ACLU recommends that retention periods should be measured in weeks not years, and policies should be clearly posted online. Careful thought should be given to who can flag a recording for further retention, and when they can do so.
- The need to ensure that anyone recorded by a body camera can access and make copies of said recording for as long as it is retained by the department.
- The need to regulate public disclosure, including redacting information to protect identities when possible.
- The need to implement protocols and technological controls that prevent tampering or destruction of evidence by the department.
- The need for explicit forbiddance of body camera use by government officials who do not have the authority to conduct searches and make arrests.
Use of body cameras would fall under the Surveillance Ordinance, which was used by the Council to rubber stamp massive amounts of police surveillance the first time we had an opportunity to review these technologies earlier this term.
Use of Force Policy
The version of the Use of Force Policy available online took effect in 2011 and was publicly released in 2015. The Police Use of Force Project is a helpful resource that the council can use as a starting point when analyzing our Use of Force Policy. This tool analyzes use of force policies from 91 of the hundred largest cities in the country, evaluating them across eight different metrics. As of 2016, none of the 91 cities had a policy that satisfied all eight of the criteria put forward by the project. The criteria are listed below, along with my analysis of how Cambridge’s policy measures up. I want to be clear that these eight criteria are by no means sufficient in my mind, and that a deeper and more radical analysis of the use of force policy is warranted in order to arrive at a satisfactory place.
1. Does the policy require officers to de-escalate situations, when possible, before using force?
No. Cambridge’s policy does not even reference de-escalation. The policy only stipulates that the force must be immediately necessary. That wording gives an uncomfortable amount of discretion to officers, and the policy should be modified to explicitly require de-escalation before using force whenever possible.
2. Does the policy use a force continuum/matrix that defines/limits the type of force and/or weapons that can be used to respond to specific types of resistance?
No. The policy does not contain such a thing. It does define “lethal” and “less-than-lethal” weapons, but it doesn’t make it clear how and when to choose between them. Such a force continuum/matrix would clarify expectations for each type of interaction, and it would create more clear boundaries around when “lethal” and “less-than-lethal” weapons can be used.
3. Does the policy restrict chokeholds and strangleholds (including carotid restraints) to situations where deadly force is authorized or prohibit them altogether?
Yes, mostly. The policy does explicitly ban “carotid control or chokeholds”. Strangleholds are not explicitly mentioned. However, it also includes a giant loophole, exempting “those types of manual holds for which a police officer has been specifically trained in gaining control or maintaining control of a detainee”. We need to better understand exactly which manual holds are currently considered permissible. Also, while it does say “Officers will not use any other type of manual holds that are intended or designed to inflict pain or injury”, I would prefer something more like “Officers shall not use any maneuver whatsoever that is intended or designed to inflict pain or injury”. Manual holds seems to refer specifically to the use of hands, which as we saw in the George Floyd case, can be subverted by using other body parts like knees and full body weight to hold down, asphyxiate and kill someone.
4. Does the policy require officers to give a verbal warning, when possible, before using deadly force?
No. The policy states that “Where practical prior to discharging a firearm, officers shall identify themselves as law enforcement officers and state their intent to shoot.” As we saw in the recent deadly shooting of a suspected looter in Los Angeles, this type of guidance does almost nothing at all. The officer pulled up in his vehicle and fired 5 shots through the windshield, striking and killing the suspect who was kneeling on the ground with his hands in the air. The officer had seen what looked like a possible butt of a handgun sticking out, which turned out to be a hammer. Presumably the officer in that situation did not think it was practical to announce his intent to shoot, and so he didn’t. Furthermore, deadly force is not limited to discharging a firearm, as we saw tragically in the cases of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and many other police killings that did not involve firing a weapon.
5. Does the policy prohibit officers from shooting at people in moving vehicles, unless the person poses a deadly threat by means other than the vehicle (for example, shooting at people from the vehicle)?
Yes. The policy clearly states that “Officers are also prohibited from discharging a firearm at a moving vehicle, except when the occupants of the vehicle are using it to employ/exert deadly force against the officer or another victim…”
6. Does the policy require officers to exhaust all other reasonable alternatives before resorting to using deadly force?
No. The policy states “Whether the degree of force used is reasonable depends upon the specific facts surrounding the situation. Only a reasonable and necessary amount of force may be used. The degree of force that the officer may reasonably be expected to use depends upon the amount of resistance, or the threat to safety that the situation presents.” None of this indicates that other alternatives must be exhausted; rather, it reads more like support for a post-hoc analysis justifying the amount of force that was used.
7. Does the policy require officers to intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force?
No. The policy appears to be silent on this issue.
Does the policy require comprehensive reporting that includes both uses of force and threats of force (for example, reporting instances where an officer threatens a civilian with a firearm)?
Yes. The policy clearly states that “…any officer who points a firearm at another individual shall be required to fully document the incident in a Use of Force Report…”
Police Review Advisory Board (PRAB)
From the PRAB website:
“The Police Review & Advisory Board was established by City Ordinance in 1984 to:
- Provide for citizen participation in reviewing Police Department policies, practices, and procedures;
- Provide a prompt, impartial and fair investigation of complaints brought by individuals against members of the Cambridge Police Department;
- Develop programs and strategies to promote positive police/community relations and to provide opportunities for expanded discussions, improved understanding, and innovative ways of resolving differences.
Membership includes 5 civilians who are representative the [sic] City’s racial, social and economic composition.”
At the June 2, 2020 meeting of the Finance Committee, staff indicated that the PRAB currently has one unfilled vacancy. While the biographies of the current members are empty on the website, the four current non-staff members all appear to be White professionals, with the only male member also being the current PRAB chair. The vacancy represents an opportunity to make the PRAB more representative.
In addition, the PRAB has many procedural and transparency limitations that render it largely ineffective as a police oversight body. While the secretary reported to the Council that only 10 complaints have been filed in each of the past two years, it is unclear how many complaints are not filed because of a lack of faith in the process. Significant reform of how this body operates should be considered, including greater independence from the police department, and greater transparency.