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Cambridge police settle civil rights case

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CAMBRIDGE — A federal lawsuit filed by a prominent Harvard professor against the Cambridge Police Department alleging civil rights violations during a 2006 arrest has been settled for an undisclosed sum.

“The case has been settled. I am satisfied,” said Professor S. Allen Counter, 61, a renowned neuroscientist and director of the acclaimed Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, during a telephone interview last week. He declined further comment, citing a confidentiality agreement.

A Cambridge police officer took Counter into custody on a charge of domestic violence after his ex-wife alleged that he had pushed their 17-year-old daughter out of his moving car.

Counter, who denied any such incident took place, said police refused to specify the charges when they arrested him and laughed when he asked why. He collapsed at the police station and had to be taken to Cambridge Hospital, where he was handcuffed to a bed and placed under police guard.

The Harvard scholar previously said that Cambridge Police Detective Sgt. William Fulkerson was a friend of his ex-wife’s and had ordered Officer William Macedo to arrest him on a spurious charge.     

In his complaint, filed against the officers, City Manager Robert Healy and the Cambridge Police Department, Counter further alleged that Fulkerson had previously harassed him and was engaging in a personal vendetta against him.

Counter, who has no criminal record and no restraining orders, was later acquitted after a brief trial in Cambridge District Court.

“The police use the power of their badge to criminalize African Americans,” said Counter just months before filing the lawsuit. “They seem to delight in branding black professionals as criminals.”

Healy and the Cambridge Police Department did not respond to requests to comment on the settlement.

Counter’s arrest on the sidewalk outside his Cambridge home touched on many of the same questions about police discretion and treatment of minority suspects raised after Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley clamped handcuffs on Harvard Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., outside his home near Harvard Square in 2009. Like Counter, Gates was arrested after the responding officer asked him to step outside his home.

The settlement of Counter’s case came in August, just several weeks before the city decided not to drop further appeals to a drawn-out $9 million court judgment against Robert Healy for wrongfully firing a black woman, Malvina Monteiro, the head of Cambridge’s civilian police review board, after she filed a bias complaint against the city.

Over the last several years, the firestorm of national publicity surrounding the Gates arrest, which resulted in the infamous “beer summit” hosted by President Obama at the White House between Gates and Crowley, has tarnished Cambridge’s reputation as a bastion of liberal tolerance.

The Counter case, along with continuing controversy over the effectiveness of the Police Review and Advisory Board, drew further scrutiny to police-community relations, which were the subject of an expensive special commission study and report convened in the wake of the Gates incident.

Cambridge City Councilor Kenneth E. Reeves, a longtime critic of city police treatment of minority suspects, especially African American men, said he was discouraged by the lack of progress in addressing the underlying issues of race, class and proper police procedure in police-community interactions.

“There is little if anything being done to implement the recommendations of the Gates panel,” said Reeves, who is equally discouraged by what he sees as the ineffectiveness of the city’s civilian review board, which is now being run by the director of the Cambridge Peace Commission.

City Councilor Denise Simmons, who was serving as mayor at the time of the Gates arrest, faulted police for not better communicating reforms made in the wake of the recommendations filed by the Gates panel. “The police department needs to be more vocal about the changes that they’ve made,” she said

Richard Cleary, a Cambridge attorney who has been an outspoken critic of the police department and the city manager, called the expensive review a whitewash and a waste of time and money. “The Gates panel recommended that we establish a civilian review board, which we already have. That’s how divorced they were from the reality of Cambridge.”

Meanwhile, he added, “The Police Review and Advisory Board is still underfunded, understaffed and undermined by the city manager. The settlement of the Monteiro and Counter cases are just further attempts to put all the issues of police practices and the city’s poor management into the rear-view mirror as quickly as possible.”