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Cambridge to host forum on police-resident relations

Brian Wright O’Connor | 10/7/2009, 6:12 a.m.
Cambridge City Councilor Kenneth E. Reeves will convene a forum on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009, for community residents to discuss civil liberties in the wake of the July arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Tony Irving

Pundits and politicians debated it. Columnists from Anchorage to Alabama wrote about it. Radio hosts and Sunday morning talking heads bloviated ad nauseum about it. Even the president got into the act — perhaps to his regret.

 Now those most affected by the issues surrounding the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. will finally get their chance to weigh in when Cambridge City Councilor Kenneth E. Reeves convenes a forum giving local residents, particularly black men, an opportunity to talk about police relations in the “People’s Republic.”

Reeves, the dean of Cambridge’s nine-member legislative body, a Harvard graduate and an attorney, said he wanted to give Cambridge citizens a forum to discuss their experiences with city police in the wake of the media firestorm about race, police and power unleashed by the Gates incident.

The Oct. 27 forum, titled “After July 16th, 2009: Have the Civil Liberties of Cambridge Residents and Visitors Been Redefined?” will be held at the Elks Lodge on Bishop Richard Allen Drive, just off Central Square, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

“Cambridge is a liberal enclave, but something’s messed up and it has to be fixed,” said Reeves. “You’ve got everyone talking about the problem, but we haven’t heard from those most affected by the way police interact with civilians. The fact is that black men in Cambridge are the ones who have had to live with the aftermath and we just haven’t heard their views.”

The Reeves forum comes as several high-profile inquiries into the events surrounding the July 16 arrest of the Harvard professor get underway.

The Cambridge Police Review and Advisory Board, a city-appointed body charged with investigating charges of police misconduct, is examining three complaints related to the Gates incident.

A separate 13-member panel of national experts, the Cambridge Review Committee, was appointed by the city to conduct its own investigation and produce a report within four months.

Both panels have been subject to criticism — the Police Review and Advisory Board for alleged ineffectiveness, and the Cambridge Review Committee for not including a representative from the police board, which has a 23-year history of investigating police-community relations.

The spotlight on “black and blue” — the interactions of African Americans with Cambridge police — began in the immediate aftermath of the arrest of Gates in front of his Ware Street home just off Harvard Square on a hot mid-July day.

Gates, just returning from a trip, had difficulty opening his front door and went around to the back to try to gain entry. A neighbor spotted Gates and a driver trying the door and called police. Sgt. James Crowley responded to the scene and cuffed Gates after a sharp exchange inside the house and on the front porch. Disorderly conduct charges against Gates were later dropped.

Asked about the arrest at a July 22 White House news conference, President Barack Obama said Cambridge police acted “stupidly,” further provoking the commentariat and eventually resulting in Gates and Crowley sharing a beer with the president.

The “beer summit” strategy, however, failed to fully calm passions or end the debate on the volatile subject of how police treat minorities, a touchy subject at the intersection of race, class and power in America.