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A group of Cambridge activists are calling for a “community safety response program” grounded in rehabilitation as an alternative to local police amid a nationwide reckoning with law enforcement.
The group, “Community For Us, By Us,” seeks to engage Cambridge residents and train them in an array of social services, including deescalation, medical care, and peer support to resolve disputes and incidents in their neighborhoods without involving the police, according to Queen-Cheyenne D. Wade, one of the group’s founders.
Wade, who said she grew up in public housing in Cambridge, said her neighbors do not trust the police. She said she believes the police focus on punishment rather than helping people.
“These are all really important things that police might be trained in but [they] might not have ties to the community, or there already are certain assumptions or groundings with how police already act that can trigger people,” she said. “And so with how we want this to be trained is that everybody has their own specific responses and needs for when they’re harmed. And so that should be honored.”
“With the current system, it’s a Band-Aid over any issue,” Wade added.
Wade said she believes a safety response program led by Cambridge residents will be more effective at resolving issues than police. She pointed to cases in which local residents might call the police out of “reflex,” even in cases where police may be unnecessary or could escalate a situation.
In response to Community For Us, By Us’s demands, Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard, Jr. said that he is open to limiting the purview of the police in some instances.
“I am supportive of creating an alternate or non-police response for appropriate non-emergency situations involving individuals experiencing mental illness,” Bard said in a statement emailed by Cambridge Police Department spokesperson Jeremy Warnick.
Warnick stated in his email that the department has strong ties to Cambridge. He wrote that “a large majority” of the department’s officers grew up around Cambridge and that individuals who want to join the department must have lived in the city for at least one year before attending the police academy.
Warnick also pointed to the department’s “Family and Social Justice Section,” a program that offers a range of social services to individuals who could not seek access to care through the criminal justice system.
Cambridge City Council unanimously passed an order in June that favors “an unarmed Public Health and Human Services response” to non-violent calls.
“Unarmed alternative emergency response programs exist across the country that can serve as a model for Cambridge to develop a program that works for our community,” the order reads. The order adopted “the ultimate goal of decreasing arrests, increasing connections to critical housing, addiction and other services, and ensuring that Public Safety feels safe for all residents.”
After passing in the city council, the order went to City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, who was tasked with planning program implementation. He is expected to present a report on the subject later this month, according to City Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan.
Zondervan said that, though the City Council supports a community safety response program, its support may not be enough for the proposal to come to fruition.
“Unfortunately, the way our government is structured, there’s just no way you could compel the city administration to do more listening. Certainly as councilors we are elected, so we want to be responsive to our constituents,” Zondervan said.
“But all we get to do is ask the city manager to look into it,” he said, “And we certainly can’t control how much community input is behind these programs.”
DePasquale did not respond to a request for comment.
Wade said that she helped launch the group due to her and others’ concerns that their views are not valued by local government and agencies.
“We’re definitely thinking about our experiences and the experiences of people that we’ve talked to in the community,” she said. “Specifically around the experiences of youth in the community — we’re not feeling heard.”
Correction: October 12, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Cambridge city councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan authored an measure that favors “an unarmed Public Health and Human Services response” to non-violent calls. In fact, Vice Mayor Alanna M. Mallon authored the measure.
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