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Police Commissioner Says He 'Absolutely' Supports Officers Who Arrested Harvard Student

Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. defended the officers involved in the Friday arrest of a Harvard undergraduate at a press conference Monday afternoon.
Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. defended the officers involved in the Friday arrest of a Harvard undergraduate at a press conference Monday afternoon. By Jonah S. Berger
By Jonah S. Berger, Crimson Staff Writer

Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. said he stands by the actions of the officers who arrested a black Harvard student Friday and said the Cambridge Police Department has not placed the officers involved on administrative leave at a press conference Monday.

The student involved in the incident is currently undergoing evaluation at a hospital for issues including mental health concerns—and the ongoing evaluation is “one of the reasons” the student has yet to be arraigned, Bard said Monday. Bard did not directly answer a question asking whether charges against the student—which include assault, indecent exposure, and resisting arrest—could be dropped in light of the undergraduate’s mental health.

“I absolutely do support the officers,” he said Monday. “You have to judge their actions within the context of a rapidly evolving situation and not within an ideal construct.”

“We operate in a practical world,” Bard said.

Bard added, though, that he is making no final determinations prior to “completing a complete and thorough investigation.” As mandated by department policy, CPD is conducting an internal review in the wake of the arrest given the incident involved use of force. Bard said Monday that CPD will make the results of this review public.

Bard also said Harvard administrators—specifically Associate Dean of Students for Diversity and Inclusion Roland S. Davis—have been in touch with CPD in the wake of the arrest. Davis previously said Harvard’s Office of General Counsel and Massachusetts Hall, traditionally a name for the University’s central administration, are “involved” in examining the Friday incident.

CPD officers arrested the undergraduate Friday after responding to several calls about the student, who was standing naked at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Waterhouse Street. After determining the student had previously taken narcotics, law enforcement officials—including three CPD officers and one officer from the Transit Police Department—tackled the student to the ground.

A later CPD police report states the officers tackled the undergraduate after he made aggressive moves toward law enforcement. But eyewitnesses including members of the Harvard Black Law Students Association have stated the officers acted “without provocation.”

While the student was on the ground, at least one CPD officer punched the undergraduate in the stomach five times in an attempt to unpin the student’s arms, according to the CPD police report. The student was transported to the hospital after the physical confrontation and was ultimately charged on several counts including indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, and assault.

CPD spokesperson Jeremy Warnick said in an interview after the press conference that the student is no longer being treated for injuries sustained during the arrest, but that he remains in the hospital—under police custody—for complications stemming from “drug ingestion” and from “an evaluation related to his mental health.”

Asked why the student has been charged if the incident involves concerns over the undergraduate’s mental health, Bard said the department is currently working to decide whether the student’s situation means he would be better served by “means other than the criminal justice system.”

“That’s an excellent question,” Bard said. “That is one of the reasons why the individual hasn’t been arraigned yet.”

Bard added CPD is working with individuals from multiple “entities,” including the District Attorney’s Office, to determine the best path forward.

One of the CPD officers involved is “still out” due to a leg injury he sustained during the altercation, according to Bard. Other officers present at the arrest sustained “minor” injuries, Warnick said.

BLSA has called the incident an instance of police brutality.

Bard—while emphasizing that he has not yet conducted “a frame-by-frame review” of video of the arrest—offered a detailed account and a defense of the CPD officers’ actions Monday. He noted CPD officers are trained to always use the least amount of force possible.

Bard said that, in an “ideal” world, the officers would have engaged “verbally only” with the student. Bard said videos of the event show that the officers standing around the undergraduate attempted to speak with the student “for a long period of time.” He said the officers “engaged” with the student for “minutes” before tackling him.

After efforts to talk to the undergraduate proved unsuccessful, the officers involved made the determination they needed to take the student “to the ground,” Bard said.

“The video also shows that the man wasn’t compliant while he was on the ground,” Bard said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on. He was flailing, kicking.”

In response to questioning from reporters at the briefing, Bard specifically discussed one CPD officer’s decision to repeatedly punch the student in the stomach. Bard said the student was preventing the officers from placing handcuffs on his arm—and he said CPD officers tried multiple other methods of subduing the student including using their batons.

“So they continued other measures, other control holds, other uses of their batons, to try to get the arm leverage from underneath the man’s body,” Bard said. “It’s a very difficult thing to do. If anyone’s ever had to constrain an individual against their will, they’ll know that it’s a very difficult thing to do.”

In the wake of the arrest, some Harvard students have questioned whether University procedures were properly followed during the incident. Eyewitnesses including members of BLSA stated that callers contacted Harvard University Health Services about the student first but that HUHS transferred the callers to CPD. Some undergraduates have questioned why CPD was contacted in lieu of the Harvard University Police Department or other resources.

Bard appeared to cast doubt on that version of events Monday. He said CPD received the information about the undergraduate from “emergency communications.”

Asked specifically whether CPD spoke to HUHS, Bard said, “I don’t believe we did at that time.”

HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano has said that HUPD was “aware” of the call about the student, but that the undergraduate was already under arrest when HUPD officers arrived at the scene.

A spokesperson for HUHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bard also addressed a BLSA statement, published over the weekend, that stated CPD officers attempted to prevent bystanders from filming the arrest. CPD’s policies recognize that individuals have the “right under the First Amendment to openly record police activity in public in a peaceful manner,” according to BLSA’s statement.

“It was clear to our Harvard BLSA members that CPD officers were not following these procedures,” the statement reads. “But for our members’ persistence in defying police attempts to obstruct videotaping this incident, there would be no record.”

Bard said Monday he has seen no evidence to support this statement.

“The allegation that officers were stopping anyone from filming, I haven’t seen any evidence of that,” he said. “And if there is some evidence, I would like to have it. Because it would be a clear violation of policy.”

The BLSA statement over the weekend noted that “a pool of blood remained on the pavement” as the ambulance carrying the student departed the scene Friday night.

Bard said at the press conference he is unsure whether the blood on the ground stemmed from injuries the student suffered during the altercation.

“While it can be inferred that any injury to the mouth occurred during the struggle with police, the male could have had, could have suffered from injuries prior to use getting there,” Bard said. “We don’t really know.”

“Once again, the investigation is ongoing,” he added.

Bard said had a community coffee chat over the weekend to which “some concerned minority Harvard students” showed up, leading to “frank and open discussions.”

He said he also attended a pre-planned church event Sunday at which he spoke with many “concerned” Harvard students.

“We had candid conversations behind the issues of racist policing,” Bard said.

Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern called the events “disturbing” in a statement Sunday. Bard said his department is attempting to operate in an equitable manner.

“This agency has gone through great lengths to make sure that we do everything through the lens of procedural justice, and try to make sure that everything we do is fair, transparent, that we providing the community with a voice and that we are impartial,” Bard said.

Warnick said the department is planning to announce new units that “are going to address procedural justice and social policing” some time in the coming months and weeks. Warnick noted these announcements had already been in the works “well before” the Friday arrest.

—Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.

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