Discussion on a policy order to reallocate funds slated for the police department ended contentiously, and without resolution, at the Cambridge City Council meeting on Wednesday night. The vote, originally set to take place this past Monday, has been postponed until next Monday.
The focus of the heated discussions was policy order #7, which would request that the city manager look into how a planned $4.1 million budget increase to the Cambridge Police Department over the next two years might be reallocated to other departments to support “measures that promote public health and safety.”
Two days earlier, initial debate around the policy was the focus of a five-hour public comment session. The robust public arguments came on the heels of over a week of protests against police brutality in Cambridge and Greater Boston, as well as around the nation, in the wake of the police killing of a Black Minneapolis man.
Under the anticipated $4.1 million increase, the CPD would receive almost $66 million in fiscal year 2021, amounting to about 10% of the city budget.
More than 300 residents spoke at Monday's meeting, the overwhelming majority of whom were in support of the policy order. With so many residents speaking, the rest of the meeting agenda — including the actual vote — was postponed.
"When I filed this policy order on Thursday, I thought it might have been too bold to pass the council. Now, I think it's the first step.”Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler
On Monday, dozens of protesters gathered outside City Hall in Central Square to push the council to pass the proposal, holding signs that read “this budget does not reflect our priorities” and calling for more funding to mental health services, affordable housing, and substance abuse counseling, among other community needs.
Earlier that day, Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville Bard announced a new order requiring officers to intervene if they see another officer engaged in “unethical or inappropriate” behavior.
But the residents who delivered public comment that night repeatedly expressed a desire for a more comprehensive rethinking of the city’s police force — and a significant reallocation of its budget.
"When I filed this policy order on Thursday, I thought it might have been too bold to pass the council,” Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, who introduced the proposal alongside Councilor Quinton Zondervan, told WBUR. “Now, I think it's the first step.”
A Surge Of Local Government Participation
“This is my first time giving public comment.”
That phrase was repeated throughout Monday night by residents who spoke at the meeting. Though the councilors were present on site, the meeting was largely remote due to the ongoing pandemic.
Erron Perez, a Black Cambridge resident, called into the meeting to express their support for the policy order. As a first-time commenter, they said it was "really encouraging" to see the outpouring of support from other residents amid a growing push for local government to respond to the wave of protests against police violence.
“It's part of my experience. I can't really get away from it,” Perez said. “And I think people are starting to realize that it's actually also their problem, that they can't escape it either.”
Malaika Moses, who described herself as “a Black woman born and raised in the Port [a neighborhood in Cambridge],” thanked the councilors for “the courageous stance that the city budget is a moral document.”
For Sobrinho-Wheeler, that’s what the councilors' proposal is about: Using public money to more effectively serve community needs, and force change in the police department.
“This is ultimately a budget proposal that really gets to the human impacts that people are living every day in Cambridge,” he told WBUR.
Residents Divided Over Defunding Cambridge Police
Police Commissioner Bard wrote in his statement Monday that while the CPD felt it could be “more explicit” in emphasizing an officer’s “duty to intervene and stop excessive force,” he believed “most, if not all, of our policies directly align with the spirit of what is being asked for in the recommendations.” By recommendations, Bard was referring to demands detailed in the "8 Can't Wait" campaign, a list of police reforms that has garnered attention on social media.
Bard told WBUR in a statement Wednesday morning that he believed the speakers at Monday's council meeting “were not necessarily directing their message at the Cambridge Police Department,” but were “attempting to leverage this unprecedented moment in our history and make a national statement around reform of government and policing.”
But at Monday's meeting, some public commenters expressed discomfort with their city’s police force.
Perez criticized Cambridge officers for what they described as poor treatment of people experiencing homelessness, in particular Black people.
“As a case worker in Central Square from the summer of last year until earlier this year, I saw first-hand how a more insidious, falsely benevolent police presence functions in a place like Cambridge,” Perez said. “The police were a key disruption point between the formerly and currently homeless, majority-Black individuals that I served in my time as a client advocate.”
“Nobody who’s asking for police abolition is asking for chaos. They’re asking for compassion.”Erron Perez
Perez said that in their ideal world, the CPD would be abolished altogether. They said that didn't mean eliminating public safety measures; rather, they wanted to see the more than $60 million in the department's budget reallocated to social services and other rehabilitative measures for residents who need help.
“Nobody who’s asking for police abolition is asking for chaos,” they said. “They’re asking for compassion.”
Some Black residents of the city were less enthusiastic about defunding or reallocating the police budget. Tony Clark, executive director of My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, told WBUR that the policy order up for discussion — and the slew of public comments in support of them — were taking a national outcry over police misconduct and violence and falsely projecting it onto a specific, local case.
“Being a native of this city, particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I would agree that we had a very, quite frankly, dysfunctional and problematic police force,” he said. “I'd like to think that there have been some improvements.”
Councilor Sobrinho-Wheeler, however, said he worries that incremental police reforms may not be enough to end police violence.
“The Minneapolis Police Department, before the killing of George Floyd, also thought they had made a lot of reforms, also thought they were really progressive on a lot of the same things that we're hearing in Cambridge,” he said. “The issue here is that the rules get broken, and just changing the rules isn't going to fix the problem.”
A "duty to intervene" policy — similar to the one Bard announced Monday — had in fact been in place Minneapolis since 2016. Derek Chauvin, the white officer who knelt on Floyd's neck for close to nine minutes, has been charged with second-degree murder; the three other officers who did not attempt to stop Chauvin have been charged with aiding and abetting the killing.
There are few high-profile examples of brutality from the Cambridge police in recent years, but one incident in 2018 did make headlines. That April, a Black Harvard undergraduate student in the midst of a mental health crisis was tackled and beaten, reportedly unprovoked, by three Cambridge police officers. More than a year after the incident, a former chief justice of the state's Supreme Judicial Court issued a review that said the officers had "acted appropriately" in the arrest and did not use excessive force.
“I'm all for defunding something that doesn't work, but I'm not for defunding something that currently is working.”Kini Udovicki
Some residents cautioned that budget losses for the police could harm the department's initiatives inside schools.
Kini Udovicki, a Cambridge school counselor, told WBUR she believes there are specific areas of social work where Cambridge police are not only capable but essential, such as in the role they serve in the city’s public schools.
“I'm all for defunding something that doesn't work, but I'm not for defunding something that currently is working,” she said. “Community relations are not the same in Cambridge with the police as they are in places outside of Cambridge — Boston, Compton, etc.”
Sobrinho-Wheeler said that however different policing is in Cambridge, the purpose of the policy order is to reimagine who could best serve underserved populations in the city.
“I think before people heard ‘reallocate police funding’ or ‘defund the police,’ and that conversation would just shut down,” he said. “Now there's a willingness to talk about the nitty gritty of, how do we transition away from relying on policing for things?”