The most inspiring rethink of justice systems I’ve seen or heard happens at First Parish in Cambridge. The Middlesex County Homeless Court is a unique justice intervention where, instead of being simply arrested and punished, people who are experiencing homelessness who end up interacting with law enforcement are questioned about their unique situation and when possible, they are connected to services and support. You can read about it here.
This got me thinking about the Defund the Police movement in Cambridge and what the opportunity might be for Cambridge. The movement is really about reallocating resources away from traditional policing toward programs, and other approaches that will decrease the need for police presence. Sure, Cambridge has done plenty, but the one thing Cambridge has not been able to do is create broad based trust. Without that trust, the ability to meet any arbitrary criteria means nothing. What comes to mind is some of what I have witnessed first hand when the police have been asked to deal with incidents at First Parish. To my knowledge, the existing police protocol requires that when there is a call made to the police, a total of five uniformed (and armed) officers arrive on the scene. I have arrived at the church to the sight of three cruisers with flashing lights crowded around the side door of the building. This is completely uncalled for on so many levels. The people who come to my church (whether for shelter or a meal) are not lethally armed (they are checked), or exceedingly violent and dangerous. They may be in distress or disoriented. To protect their confidentiality, I won’t comment on specific incidents but most often I’m sure the people who require police intervention pose the greatest danger to themselves.
Cambridge, Harvard and MIT police have an opportunity in this moment to redirect funds in order to establish a different brand of public safety…
The overall impact of having to interact with armed, military style police creates another level of trauma in the lives of young people and people experiencing homelessness that is not productive and further erodes trust. But this is true for all of us. Being confronted with weapons and severe blue uniforms that only slightly disguise body armor as the only presence of public safety, creates an air of lethal threat that is inherently distressing to everyone. I’m sure this is deliberate; but this is the problem. Intimidation only provides for limited solutions. So why are we using a hammer on a screw?
Cambridge, Harvard and MIT police have an opportunity in this moment to redirect funds in order to establish a different brand of public safety that isn’t even called “police” but does something similar to the Homeless Court by providing an intervention before things escalate to the need for “police”. Although there are already a small portion of CPD officers assigned to this kind of work, what about a well funded, diverse “Peace Patrol” whose entire purpose was to connect with the community? The goal would be to provide a stopgap that begins with the premise that people are not problems, but rather that people experience problems. A Peace Patrol would be an unarmed presence in the community that would be trained in verbal and physical de-escalation, community building and social work and they would have direct connections to resources for people in need. They would be dressed in a less threatening manner and be highly visible in place of beat patrol. Most importantly, they would have daily relationships with both business owners and people who are unhoused, educators and students. They would become the most common face of Cambridge Public Safety. Above all, the most important thing that a Peace Patrol could accomplish is establishing a new trust narrative that does not exist in an environment where five armed officers with cruisers shows up.
Cambridge is unique in the number of police forces that exist within its city limits. It is also unique in its economic, cultural and age diversity. Being blessed by people of color in leadership in the police force and city government while having access to some of the most important public health and technical minds in the world adds to the opportunities available. There is no reason for Cambridge to accept a status quo approach to policing. All three, the City of Cambridge, Harvard and MIT should consider this approach. Yes, every city is different, but public safety of any kind should not begin with policing; it must begin with people. Cambridge can and must do better.