Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern questioned the Cambridge Police Department’s use of force—specifically punching—during the recent arrest of a black Harvard undergraduate at an event Wednesday night.
McGovern also said he has received criticism from police officers who felt his comments on the arrest did not show support for the officers.
The Harvard College Leadership Development Initiative invited McGovern to speak at Sever Hall Wednesday about Cambridge politics and McGovern’s experience as mayor. A handful of undergraduates attended the hour-long event.
The mayor began the conversation Wednesday night by discussing Cambridge voting policies, the ongoing effort to provide more affordable housing, and his background as a lifelong Cantabrigian and a former social worker. The black student’s arrest came up after a member of the audience asked about the incident and the mayor's “gut reaction."
arrested the student, who was standing off-campus and thus outside of the territory over which the Harvard University Police Department has jurisdiction, on April 13. The student was standing naked and likely under the influence of narcotics on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Waterhouse Street—an area only feet from the Law School, though not part of campus.
After CPD officers arrived at the scene, they spoke briefly with the student before one officer tackled the student to the ground and delivered five punches to the student’s stomach in an effort to handcuff him, according to the CPD police report.
A video of the incident later published by the Cambridge Police Department shows the student standing still, surrounded by four officers, while the officers talk to him for several seconds. 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.
Hours after the arrest, the Harvard Black Law Students Association released a statement calling the incident an example of “police brutality.” In the following weeks, University affiliates met to process and protest the incident, and University President Drew G. Faust recently announced she has convened a committee to review the events leading up to the arrest.
Three days after the arrest, McGovern released a statement calling the arrest "disturbing."
“We have high standards for our police officers in Cambridge,” the statement read.
On Wednesday, McGovern spoke for roughly 10 minutes about the arrest, beginning by defending his original statement.
“I put out a statement which had people on both sides hating me, so I think it was good,” McGovern said.
He then devoted time to defending and praising the Cambridge Police Department, adding that it has been some time since a similar incident has occured in the city.
“I think we have a great police force. People have gone back 10 years to the Louis Gates situation to find an incident that they can point to of the Cambridge Police treating a person of color—or, in a city of 115,000 people, with the diversity we have, and you have to go back 10 years, that’s pretty good,” McGovern said.
Gates, a professor of African and African American studies, was arrested at his home in 2009 in an incident that sparked national dialogue and was largely criticized as racist.
McGovern also said that, even though Cambridge “do[es] a lot more training of our police officers,” there are going to be some officers who “aren’t going to follow that training.”
The mayor pointed to his background in social work and said he has had to restrain individuals himself. He said that process is “always disturbing.”
“I’ve done hundreds of restraints of teenagers, mostly, who I’ve worked with, who have been having a mental health crisis and have either determined whether they’re going to hurt themselves or hurt someone else and you have to restrain them,” McGovern said. “It is always disturbing. It is disturbing for the person who has to be restrained. It is disturbing for the people who do the restraints. It is disturbing for the people who are watching. That looked horrible.”
McGovern said at the event that, up until officers began punching the student, the restraint “wasn’t any different than any other restraint” that he has seen.
“I’ve been a certified trainer in crisis prevention, the CPI, Crisis Prevention Institute which is all about the escalation and then the second component is about to restrain people. I’ve been a certified trainer in that for 25 years and never seen a training that punching is part of the curriculum,” McGovern said.
At the event, the mayor also said members of the police department are “pissed” at him for his response to the incident.
“I just spoke at a police thing today and I was going to get booed because they’re all pissed at me,” McGovern said.
“And so for the police who were angry at me because I said we have to actually investigate this and look at this and learn from this and see what could have been done differently, they took that as ‘You’re not supporting us,’” McGovern added. “And I said ‘No, I think what the investigation is going to show is that they did what they had to do in that situation.’ But you always want to look and you want to learn.”
McGovern said self-criticism is crucial in order for the incident to become a learning opportunity for the city and the police department.
"One of the things that we have to do as a city, as the police department and as individuals, is be willing to self-reflect and be self-critical,” McGovern said. “That’s how you grow and that’s how you get better.”
—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.
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