The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice—a civil rights advocacy group—sent a letter to Cambridge officials Thursday stating the recent arrest of a black Harvard student comprised “police brutality” and calling for “systemic change.”
Cambridge Police Department officers arrested the black undergraduate Friday night after a physical confrontation. The letter—addressed to Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern and CPD Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr.—states that medical or mental health personnel should have responded instead of the police.
The undergraduate arrested Friday was likely under the influence of narcotics when bystanders called Harvard University Health Services. HUHS then transferred the call to Harvard University Police Department, HUHS spokesperson Michael Perry said in an interview Monday.
According to HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano, HUPD then transferred the call to CPD, which he described as the “department with primary jurisdiction.” The student, while standing feet from Harvard Law School, was not on campus.
“There is no place for excessive force in police interactions with civilians, particularly with unarmed youth of color,” the letter reads.
The lawyers' committee is not the first group to criticize CPD’s use of force; the Harvard Black Law Students Association tweeted out a statement Friday calling the arrest an instance of police brutality.
Before the student’s arrest, the undergraduate and four members of local law enforcement engaged in a physical confrontation. The officers tackled the student, who was naked, to the ground.
A later CPD police report states the student clenched his fists and began making aggressive moves toward the officers, prompting them to tackle him. But eyewitnesses of the incident—including BLSA members—have stated that CPD’s version of events is incorrect and that the officers acted “without provocation.”
A video of the incident later published by the New York Times shows the student standing still surrounded by four officers while the officers talk to him briefly. The student turns around and takes two steps towards one officer before taking a step back and raising his arms to chest-level. Another officer then tackles the student from behind.
While the student remained on the ground, at least one CPD officer punched the undergraduate in the stomach five times in an "ineffective" attempt to unpin the student’s arms and handcuff him, according to the CPD police report. The student was arrested on charges including indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, and assault.
The letter—penned by Executive Director Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal—calls for action from Bard and McGovern in the wake of the incident. McGovern wrote in a statement Sunday that the arrest was “disturbing.” On Monday, Bard said at a press conference that he stands by the actions of the officers who arrested the student and that CPD has not placed them on administrative leave.
In the letter, Espinoza-Madrigal wrote that Cambridge officials should “take concrete steps to properly address medical and/or mental health emergencies” and to train “police officers on implicit bias and use of force.”
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 at the Monday press conference. Bard did not directly answer a question asking whether charges against the student could be dropped in light of the undergraduate’s mental health.
The lawyers' committee's goal is for Cambridge and Harvard to “adopt a comprehensive policy” to respond to “medical and/or mental health emergencies,” per the Thursday letter.
“This policy should be aimed at ensuring that when such emergencies arise, it is medical and/or mental health professionals–those trained in handling these situations safely and effectively–who are called to the scene as first responders instead of armed police,” the letter reads.
Espinoza-Madrigal said in a phone interview Wednesday that the committee plans to “follow up” with Cambridge and Harvard officials after sending the letter.
“We have not talked with HUPD, HUHS, and CPD but we intend to now that we have drafted the letter,” he said. “We intend to follow up and continue monitoring developments in this matter and seeking meetings with the appropriate officials to discuss a comprehensive policy that can be adopted both at the city level, at the police department level to make sure that medical and mental health emergencies are properly handled.”
Espinoza-Madrigal said he does not currently know exactly which officials his group will contact, but that he plans to determine this fact in the coming weeks.
He emphasized both in the letter and in the interview that “this issue echoes many other problematic police-civilian interactions around the country involving black men.”
In particular, he pointed to the case of Terrence Coleman, a 31-year-old black man who officers from the Boston Police Department shot and killed in Oct. 2016 after responding to a 911 call reporting that Coleman needed to go to the hospital. The lawyers' committee—which represents Coleman’s mother, Hope Coleman—has argued in legal filings that, because Coleman had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, the situation was primarily a medical one and BPD should not have responded to the 911 call.
“We see strong parallels where an incident involving someone who was experiencing a medical or mental health emergency escalates into brutality perpetrated by the police,” Espinoza-Madrigal said in the Thursday interview.
Professors Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and Dehlia Umunna, who serve as faculty director and deputy director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute, respectively, will represent the College student in court, according to a press release Sullivan and Umunna published Tuesday.
—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.
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