Update on Police Demilitarization

Here is a more detailed update on the effort to demilitarize the police. 

The original policy order I submitted on April 26 can be reviewed here. At that meeting, Councillor Simmons immediately exercised her charter right on the item, blocking all discussion and postponing further debate until the next meeting. I didn’t even get a chance to speak on my own motion!

On May 3 at the following week’s meeting, Councillor McGovern introduced a substitute order which completely replaced the original language with his own version. The amendment by substitution was a not-so-subtle way of erasing the original message with something deemed less offensive to the status quo protectors. When you have a majority of votes on the Council, you can do that! Councillor McGovern didn’t send his language until 6:42 PM, 90 minutes after the meeting had already begun. I’m not generally paying much attention to my inbox during the council meetings, so I didn’t even see the amendment until we started discussing the matter much later in the night.

Because Councillor Simmons had exercised her charter right the previous week, she got to speak first when the item came up. She stated her opinion that she “doesn’t see the police department as militarized” and that she found the proposed language to be “inflammatory”. Then I finally got to introduce my order, which called on the City Manager to produce a plan for demilitarization of the police force including getting rid of the Lenco BearCat. The preamble rationalized the ask with a careful accounting of nearly a year’s worth of community discussions and progress.

Our effort really took off last year when we found an obscure provision in the municipal code which compelled Police Commissioner Bard to provide the City Manager with a complete inventory of the police department. We passed a policy order pointing this provision out, and a few months later we had perhaps the first ever public inventory of our Cambridge Police Department. It took months to schedule a committee hearing on the report at a time that worked for all relevant city staff, including the Police Commissioner. At the January 2021 hearing, we heard from Alex Vitale (author of “The End of Policing”) who presented evidence showing that military weapons in policing neither reduced crime, nor enhanced officer safety, as well as community activist Matthew Kennedy who presented a nationwide analysis of the deadliness of armed policing and the disproportionate impact on Black people. Cambridge residents Queen Cheyenne-Wade spoke on behalf of the Black Response, outlining their demands which include demilitarization of the police and the creation of an unarmed public safety response alternative. Public comment was also overwhelmingly supportive of getting rid of the military weapons.

Back to the discussion of the policy order. During this, two of my colleagues suggested that I had not done any work on this issue other than January’s Public Safety hearing. In fact, I had a meeting with the Commissioner, the City Manager, the Solicitor and the Mayor where the City Manager made it very clear that he did not wish to dispose of these weapons. In addition I’ve conducted several meetings with experts and community members on this topic and others both before and after the January 6 Public Safety Committee hearing. The Commissioner chose to announce a “20% reduction” of the long guns (assault rifles and shotguns) on his own, without any communication with me or the council. However, a “reduction” is not the same as “to eliminate”.

The amendment by substitution passed with a 7-2 vote (Sobrino-Wheeler and Zondervan against) and the order as amended was then adopted with an 8-1 vote (Zondervan against). 

Also noteworthy is that the Council insisted on referring the imagined response from the city manager straight to the Public Safety Committee, a minor procedural sleight of hand that makes it clear that the Council is not truly interested in the matter.

This is how the council does business. In the dark of night, while almost nobody is watching, the voices of Black and Brown community members objecting to living in a white-supremacist occupation are erased, and the majority-white council instead demotes the objection to a “concern” and the ask to “eliminate” with an ask to report back on “reduction”.

These actions reveal the depth of white supremacy and gaslighting that operate in Cambridge to keep the racist system intact while we march in the streets for change.

If you want a different outcome, you will have to elect a different council.

So let’s compare the two orders to fully understand the depth of subterfuge at work here in order to erase the demands of the community that our police department demilitarize:

WHEREAS: The inventory includes many assault rifles and shotguns, as well as a Lenco Bearcat armored vehicle; andWHEREAS: A concern has been raised by some in the community regarding the number and types of weapons and equipment in the possession of the Cambridge Police Department andOriginal specifically names the offending equipment; Substitute erases the details in favor of a vague “concern” about “weapons and equipment”. Substitute downplays the broad community support for demilitarizing the police.
WHEREAS: The Lenco Bearcat armored vehicle has been used to intimidate peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters; andDeletedAll references to the Lenco Bearcat are stripped out of the substitute. The community concern that it serves as a form of intimidation is erased.
WHEREAS: On January 6, 2021 the Public Safety Committee heard from community members and subject matter experts, who argued that there is no credible benefit to the Police Department having this type of military-grade equipment, and that its presence does ongoing harm to the community; andWHEREAS: Police Commissioner Bard presented an inventory of such equipment to the Public Safety Committee of the Cambridge City Council earlier this year andSubstitute reframes the January 6 committee hearing to make it about the Police Commissioner, completely erasing the community members and subject matter experts who led the conversation and educated the council. Specific objections raised are replaced with an assiduously neutral statement that even softens “weapon” to “equipment”.
WHEREAS: On February 19, 2021 the Police Department announced it would eliminate camouflage materials and reduce its weapon inventory by 20-30%, a concession that does not go far enough to address the calls to demilitarize the police; now therefore be itWHEREAS: Police Commissioner Bard has already taken steps to reduce this inventory and has publicly indicated that he is taking steps to further reduce this inventory in the future andSubstitute replaces a factual, specific description of concessions made by the PD with a vague, ineffectual statement and an empty promise of future reform. The original language acknowledges the concession and expresses a desire to go farther, but the substitute is just an informational dead end.
WHEREAS: Some remain concerned regarding the CPD’s possession of such weapons and equipment, therefore, be itThe substitute adds this additional, redundant clause which uses the same language as above to erase the people closest to the pain.
ORDERED: That the City Manager work with the Cambridge Police Department to present a plan to the City Council for demilitarization, including the destruction and recycling of all rifles and shotguns, and elimination of the Lenco Bearcat; and be it furtherORDERED: That the City Manager is hereby requested to work with the Police Commissioner and report back to the Public Safety Committee on steps taken to address this concern and issue a status report on how the City is moving forward with reducing weapons and equipment deemed unnecessary by the Cambridge Police Department.This is the meat and potatoes of course: the original asks for “a plan” whereas the substitute calls for “a report”. The original calls for the “destruction and recycling” of “all rifles and shotguns”, the substitute refers to “reducing” again “weapons and equipment” deemed unnecessary by CPD. This last phrase is key, leaving the decision entirely up to the Police, rather than expressing any policy directive from the Council.
ORDERED: That the City Manager present a response to the City Council ahead of the relevant upcoming FY22 budget hearingsDeletedErasing any link to the budget discussion, thereby ensuring that no response will happen.