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Cambridge panel sounds off on police discretion, profiling


CAMBRIDGE — At what point does police discretion become discrimination?

When a white cop arrests a black suspect for disorderly conduct on his own property? When police repeatedly stop an African American motorist in his own neighborhood and ask what he’s doing there?

The blurry line between protecting the public and succumbing to prejudice came under scrutiny last week at a Cambridge civil rights forum held to examine police-community relations close to seven months after the high-profile arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.

According to former Cambridge Police Chief Perry Anderson, the July 16 arrest of the African American studies professor by Sergeant James Crowley steered dangerously close to an abuse of police discretion. “I don’t think you can justify the arrest of a person in his own house,” said Anderson.

Northeastern University Law Professor Deborah Ramirez, an expert on racial profiling, said the dismissal of the disorderly conduct charge suggested the weakness of the case against Gates, who was placed in handcuffs after objecting loudly to Crowley’s treatment.

“I don’t think there’s a court in Massachusetts that would uphold this charge. That is why this charge never came to court,” said Ramirez.

“But I wonder how many young men have been arrested on disorderly conduct charges and didn’t get it dismissed — how many of them pleaded out and were left with an arrest record and conviction?” asked Ramirez.

Cambridge City Councilor Kenneth E. Reeves said the forum, titled “Civil Rights: Policing, Discretion and Race in Cambridge,” provided an important opportunity to publicly air concerns about how police treat people of color.

“We want to feel better about how we are policed, but we can’t do that without talking about it,” said Reeves. In the weeks after the Gates arrest, talk about the incident flew around barbershops and blogs but it wasn’t until the forum that community members had a chance to speak out, said Reeves.

The Rev. Irene Moore, a Cambridge resident who spoke on the forum panel, said that black men were not the only targets of unwarranted police exercise of discretion. She described her partner, a doctor, getting frequently stopped while jogging or driving through their neighborhood. “She gets stopped not just for driving while black but for jogging while black,” said Moore.

Anderson, head of the Cambridge Police Department from 1991 to 1995, said he was often stopped near his Miami home by officers who didn’t believe him when he pointed out his nearby house.

 Their suspicions were further aroused, said Anderson, when he opened his mouth to speak. “I’m probably the only police commissioner you’ve ever seen with a gold tooth,” he said, provoking laughter in the audience at the St. Paul AME Christian Life Center.

Asked by moderator Richard Harding whether the Gates arrest occurred because the professor stepped over some imaginary line in his verbal interaction with Crowley, Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker was greeted with applause when he said, “I think police only ought to arrest people who have broken the law.”

Hip-hop artist Imam “Flash” Firmin touched on the interaction between lingering stereotypes and police behavior in describing an incident in which police stopped him with his daughter in the car.

The officer took his ID and returned with the comment that he was amazed Firmin could have grown up in the neighborhood without compiling a record of any arrests or convictions.

Ramirez said the way to minimize abuse of police discretion is to manage it through statistical data. “You cannot possibly manage what you don’t measure,” she said, adding that police should compile records of stops and arrests by race and make it publicly available.

“We want to know about Crowley’s record of arresting suspects for disorderly conduct by race, how many of those were taken to court and tried, how many were broomed,” she said. “We need to measure what matters.”