Cambridge Police did what they had to do and did not use excessive force to subdue a naked, black Harvard student standing on a Massachusetts Avenue traffic island screaming and making what appeared to be threatening motions on April 13 of last year, retired Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland concludes.
Cambridge released Ireland's 18-page review of the incident today. Ireland based his conclusions on reports and statements from officers and eyewitnesses, video of the incident, audio from police communications and his own knowledge of Massachusetts law.
Although he does not fault the officers, Ireland wrote that the department and city should use the incident as a learning experience: He recommended the city hold public meetings or forums at which to explain current practices for dealing with emotionally disturbed people in public, a private review to ensure officers are continuing to follow practices - many of them put in place after the Henry Louis Gates incident, and continuing professional education to ensure local officers are up to date on the latest techniques for dealing with people with apparent mental illness.
Such outreach is important, because it is difficult for the average layperson to look at this particular incident in isolation from the numerous cases that have occurred across the country in which black men have been subjected to overreactions or excessive force from police officers, including the Gates case that occurred right in Cambridge. Rightly or wrongly, any event involving police will be looked at with some skepticism and questioning.
Ireland, who is himself black, says the situation began with a call to 911 from Harvard's student health center, whom one of the student's friends had called to report the student had taken drugs and was "tripping" and walking naked in Cambridge Common.
When four Cambridge officers arrived, after several more calls to 911 about the man, now naked and standing on a narrow island on Mass. Ave.,, they started by calmly talking to him, trying to get him to sit down to await the ambulance they requested, Ireland writes. Police shut the road towards Porter Square as they tried to talk to the student, who answered none of their questions and refused to sit down. Then, Ireland writes, the student began walking towards on officer, then spun around and headed towards a second, his arms now raised to his waist level:
Officer 2 put up his hands, said "Whoa, whoa," and moved back. At that moment Officer 1 was concerned the student was going to harm Officer 2 or run into traffic and grabbed the student from behind by the legs and brought him to the ground.
The student started screaming, "I need Jesus," as the three officers tried to get him to put his hands behind his back. Instead of complying, the student was flailing, screaming and lying on his arms and hands. At some point an MBTA police officer, who happened to be driving by, stopped to assist. One of the officers hit the student once in the head with his fist hoping to distriact him so that they could get his arms out from under his body. It did not work. Another officer then punched the student in the abdomen area approximately five times, again hoping to proved enough of a distraction so that they could get the student's hands out from under his body. When that did not work, one of the officers used his baton to pry each of his arms out from under him. He was put in handcuffs with his hands behind his back. Because he was still screaming and flailing, officers put leg irons on him.
Ireland continues that once the student was put in an ambulance, he spat on one of the EMTs as he continued to flail and repeatedly calling for Jesus's help. At the hospital, the student spat at the officer who had ridden in the ambulance with him before doctors sedated him.
Ireland said the fact that nobody heard the officers screaming - along with the way they immediately called for an ambulance, rather than additional officers, showed their intent was to help the student, in part by talking to him in calm, low tones. And they had legitimate public-safety concerns what with a seemingly incoherent naked man standing on a narrow traffic island in one of the city's busiest streets, only one side of which had been shut down.
Ireland said the cops never unholstered their guns, tasers or pepper spray - and that they stopped their punching as soon as they had him in handcuffs.
It is clear in the video that the officers are intent on their task of keeping the student on the ground, but there is nothing that indicates any of them are displaying any anger toward the student. In fact, they all help ambulance personnel get the student onto the stretcher so that he could be transported to the hospital.
Ireland acknowledged many bystanders were upset when they saw the officers tackle and punch the student - and that the video "is upsetting to watch."
But Ireland continued that punching is actually taught as a technique to distract individuals resisting being handcuffed, as the students was - as is using a baton to pry a person's arms out from under them in such situations.
Ireland said he has no reason to doubt that assertion and that "the video does not show more force than the officers identified as part of their training."
In other words:
I conclude that the determination that the officers' actions were within the police of the Cambridge Police Department is correct and that the officers did not use excessive force when they subdued the student.
He then continued to list his recommendations for dealing with such situations in the future, in particular for forums between police and residents - especially students at local colleges.