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Cambridge Weighs Non-Police Public Safety Alternatives

Cambridge officials are weighing non-police public safety alternatives.
Cambridge officials are weighing non-police public safety alternatives. By Tiana A Abdulmassih
By Sarah Girma and Brandon L. Kingdollar, Crimson Staff Writers

The Cambridge government is considering two public safety alternatives to traditional policing, which now await action from the city manager before a vote by the City Council.

Following a May report from the City’s Future of Public Safety Task Force, Cambridge officials are considering two proposals for policing alternatives — funding a non-governmental Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team developed by local police abolition organization The Black Response, and establishing a city-led Cambridge Department of Community Safety.

Under both initiatives, trained civilians — in place of police officers — would respond to some emergency calls, including ones involving mental health or unhoused residents. However, while the CDCS would work in tandem with the Cambridge Police Department, HEART has pledged to not coordinate with the police under any circumstances.

The Council unanimously passed a policy order in June requesting City Manager Louis A. DePasquale to consider funding the HEART proposal. As of Wednesday, the Council is still awaiting a report from the city manager summarizing his conclusions, according to the city’s meeting agenda.

Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan, who sponsored the June policy order, noted an “inherent tension” between the values of CDCS and HEART. He said CDCS, which was designed by the city manager’s office, lacks the resident perspective that is central to HEART.

“We’re trying to create a community-based alternative response that is not an extension of the state,” Zondervan said. “This department isn’t rooted in the community the way that HEART would be, and so even if it incorporates some of those ideas, it still can’t ultimately accomplish the same purpose.”

Several HEART members highlighted other differences. For example, HEART would prioritize consent in their interactions with residents, such as when referring them to transition houses and shelters, they said.

“We are not forcing anything upon anybody,” said Ilham Elazri, a community engagement coordinator with HEART. “We’re just there to listen and to see where we can be of service to you.”

Samuel M. Gebru, who served on the city’s public safety task force, said the abolitionist goals of HEART are “commendable,” but that he does not believe a policy of “zero coordination” with the police is practical.

HEART member Sara Suzuki said the organization’s zero coordination policy is a direct response to the “community need” for a public safety option entirely independent of the police, calling it a “core principle” of HEART.

“HEART would never compromise or change its structure to include cooperation with police or include police involvement,” Suzuki said.

Suzuki added that many Cambridge residents are afraid to call the police due to negative past experiences.

“Those people deserve to have an option for safety as well,” she said.

The Council has been exploring public safety reform since George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. Less than a month after Floyd’s murder, councilors unanimously passed an order asking the City to examine alternatives to policing.

According to Reverend Irene Monroe, police reform debates have raged in Cambridge since the 2009 wrongful arrest of renowned Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. She said Gates’ arrest was crucial to her decision to join the City’s Future of Public Safety Task Force.

“It was quite unnerving,” Monroe said of the arrest. “While we don’t supposedly live in segregated America or segregated Cambridge, we are segregated by virtue of zip code, as well as square.”

“This did not need to escalate to the level that it did, but it does say a lot about white space and Black folks in perceived white space,” she added.

Imam Khalil Abdur-Rashid, a member of the task force, said he supports a “hybrid model,” which he said would take the best of both the HEART and CDCS proposals.

“I do think that there can be hope and effectiveness in a cooperative hybrid model,” Abdur-Rashid said. “The old adage of ‘it takes a village’ really does apply in this case.”

Gebru, who serves as a fellow at the Tufts University Center for State Policy Analysis, said he wants to give new CPD Commissioner Christine A. Elow time to implement her vision for departmental reform before making seismic changes.

“We have a really strong new police commissioner, and I want to give her the window that she needs to be able to make any reforms that she sees fit,” Gebru said. “I think the HEART proposal is terrific, but I don’t see our city pursuing something that would be totally disconnected from any city agency.”

Correction: January 28, 2022

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Samuel M. Gebru is a member of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts. In fact, he is a former member of the group and currently serves as a fellow at the Tufts University Center for State Policy Analysis.

—Staff writer Brandon L. Kingdollar can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @newskingdollar.

—Staff writer Sarah Girma can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @SarahGirma_.

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