Cambridge Council to probe city cops

Brian Wright O’Connor | 10/21/2009, 5:02 a.m.

The Cambridge panel charged with investigating allegations of police misconduct, already subject to a review by the mayor, will come under further scrutiny from the City Council when it convenes a special meeting later this year to assess its status and effectiveness.

The added layer of inquiry comes as a number of  Cambridge residents and elected officials have called the five-member Police Review and Advisory Board understaffed and overwhelmed, unable to keep pace with complaints and hamstrung by second-guessing when its recommendations come before the city manager.

Several appointed members of the board have also questioned why the panel is not represented on the Cambridge Review Committee, the 13-member body appointed in the wake of the controversial July 16 arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. to make recommendations concerning police procedures and community relations.

Adding to the discontent is the fact that a full-time director earning $130,000 annually runs the committee, hastily assembled in the wake of the blockbuster arrest, while the review board has gone over nine months without an executive director.

Frustrated by the review board’s operations and testy relationship with the city manager, the Cambridge City Council on Oct. 5 passed a policy order offered by Councilor Craig Kelley calling for the special meeting to discuss the panel. No date has been set.

That order followed a request by Mayor E. Denise Simmons to provide a review of the board’s record of investigating police misconduct, recommending disciplinary action, and the city’s response in following up on those recommendations.

Meanwhile, a separate community meeting to allow city residents to air their views on the Gates arrest and their experiences with police has been postponed until November, according to City Councilor Kenneth E. Reeves, who is convening the forum in order to allow those most affected by police relations – black men – to be heard.

The forum was originally scheduled for the Elks Club in Central Square next week.

Sparked by the confrontation between Gates and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley at the scholar’s Ware Street home near Harvard Square, the mounting concern over the review board re-opens tensions going back to the formation of the civilian panel in 1986.

Cambridge is nearly unique among U.S. cities to subject its police to review by an independent investigative body. The council created the board on a 5-4 vote after a contentious debate, with provisions, since amended, restricting appointments to residents of certain neighborhoods in the city.

City Manager Robert W. Healy, who has borne the brunt of criticism about the board’s performance, said in an email statement that he has promptly filled board vacancies, provided adequate staffing resources, and carefully monitored the board’s case-load.

“I have also insisted upon increasing professionalism by the Cambridge Police Department and a cooperative relationship between the police department and PRAB (Police Review and Advisory Board), which I believe has been highly successful,” said Healy.

Under Cambridge’s form of city governance, the manager runs the municipality’s day-to-day operations, with policy set by the nine-member city council.