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Two Proposals for a Less-Policed Cambridge

By The Crimson Editorial Board

The City of Cambridge has some bold new ideas on how to police. Spurred on (but not too fast) by the racial turmoil of summer 2020, the city government is now considering two proposals on non-police approaches to public safety. Their goal? To divert some of the responsibilities traditionally assigned to police departments, particularly when it comes to responding to emergency calls.

That Cambridge, after dragging its feet through the bureaucratic process, is seriously considering either proposal is itself deeply encouraging, a sign of how far our city has come since the days when “increased transparency” was deemed equivalent to meaningful reform (it’s not). Both proposals strike at the fundamental need to shrink the sphere of police responsibility and develop alternative approaches to elements of public safety. For that alone, both initiatives are deeply commendable.

We have repeatedly pointed to the flaws of existing policing systems. Improper uses of excessive force fall disproportionately on Black Americans, even after controlling for a host of confounding variables. We need not condemn the more than 1,000 police killings of unarmed people from 2013 to 2019 as unjustified to recognize that they constitute an urgent moral problem, not least because the systems for regulating police misconduct are broken. In short: Policing is broken, and we can’t trust it to fix itself.

In this context, solutions that cut down the number of civilian-officer interactions become very attractive. The city council has given us two. The Cambridge Department of Community Safety proposed by the city, would send trained civilians to respond to some emergency calls, focusing particularly on non-criminal issues. The Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team developed by a local police abolition activist group, has outlined similar responsibilities but pledged not to cooperate with CPD under any circumstances.

We particularly welcome the shared emphasis on civilian community members, over uniformed and armed police officers, taking on a significant role in day-to-day practices. A natural concern with any policing alternative is that it will regress, in time, to a conventional police force with a different uniform. Both CDCS and HEART seem to actively guard against this.

We hope to see the rapid implementation and eventual success of either or both of these programs. Choosing neither is simply not an option. But when it comes to selecting one approach over the other, there’s a shortage of the fine-grained operational detail that any informed citizen — or, for that matter, editorial board — would need to give an emphatic endorsement.

HEART, for example, has stated that it will not interact with CPD at all; while we applaud their optimism, we are concerned that this will prove unrealistic, at least in the first stages of its implementation. It’s not hard to imagine situations where both or neither groups show up to a call, or where a HEART responder needs to call CPD — but can’t — out of fear for their personal safety or that of a third party. Along the same lines, HEART, by virtue of its non-governmental character, isn’t bound by the same laws that regulate transparency in government organizations. We hope that any potential funding allocation to the program will be contingent on an ongoing guarantee of public transparency in their operations.

So, to those behind these exciting initiatives: Get specific on the details. Let us know exactly what either of these programs would mean for the community so that the public can make an informed decision based on their respective merit. CDCS and HEART should offer more precise and better-publicized information on the specifics of their potential implementation, including how responders will be trained, who they will be accountable to, and how the groups will interact with existing emergency services. If ideological boldness has made these policies a possibility, their implementation details will determine their success.

Meanwhile, the City Council’s initiative reminds us to redouble our efforts toward justice in our own backyard. We still firmly believe that Harvard’s police department should be abolished. Harvard’s administration should, moreover, look to CDCS and HEART for inspiration in finding alternative public safety mechanisms that minimize police intervention. On the more preemptive side of things, academic work by Harvard experts that aims to understand and tackle the economic and social roots of crime should be praised and spotlit, offered the space and resources it needs to succeed.

Each effort, each new daring policy proposal, brings us a little closer to a future where crime is far less frequent, and our response far more humane. A kinder, less policed reality for the city of Cambridge and beyond.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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