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Gates report blasted, review panel head quits

Brian Wright O’Connor | 10/13/2010, 5:26 a.m.

CAMBRIDGE — The July report on the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. came under blistering attack at a Cambridge City Council hearing last week where local residents and elected officials called its scope too narrow, its costs exorbitant, and its process flawed.

“This was a study in denial and an inability to discuss race when race was so central to the issue,” said Cambridge City Councilor Kenneth E. Reeves after the hearing.

“Professor Gates told Officer Crowley after the handcuffs were put on, ‘You’re arresting me because I’m black.’ So how could you avoid a discussion of race?” said Reeves.

The Oct. 3 special hearing on the $240,000 study came more than two months after a 12-member appointed panel filed its report, which concluded that both the Harvard scholar and Police Sgt. James Crowley missed opportunities to de-escalate the July 16, 2009, confrontation at Gates’ home on Ware Street just outside of Harvard Square.

The report called for better police training in dealing with confrontations with civilians as well as more effective outreach to educate the public about police procedures. It did not reach conclusions about who was at fault in the incident nor did it tackle the subject of how race played into the perceptions and actions of the white police officer and the black suspect.

The panel’s work came as a disappointment to those who were expecting a more thorough parsing of the Gates arrest, which resulted in a media firestorm that was fanned even higher by President Barack Obama’s criticism of the police and the subsequent beer garden summit at the White House between the professor and the arresting officer.

Frustrations over police-community relations in Cambridge were simmering long before the Gates arrest, with most of the focus on allegations of racial profiling of young black males and the slack performance of investigations into claims of police misconduct by the civilian-led Police Review and Advisory Board.

The review panel, long stymied by staffing shortages, has once again been left leaderless. The executive director, hired in January after the position was left vacant for nearly a year, resigned and has not been replaced. The former executive director, civil rights attorney Marlissa Briggett, was also running the city’s human rights commission.

Reeves said he was frustrated by the slow pace of work of the review board and by the lack of urgency in addressing its shortcomings. “There is not in this council a majority to give the Police Review and Advisory Board any real authority,” he said.

Based on comments at the council hearing, confidence in the city’s ability to manage police-community relations has significantly deteriorated.

Addressing City Manager Robert Healy and Police Commissioner Robert Haas, Reeves and other councilors pointed to the fact that the October hearing was the council’s first opportunity for an official briefing on the 60-page report as a sign that the nine-member body was marginalized during the entire process.

“I expressed repeatedly during the process that I did not feel I was talked to,” said Councilor Leland Cheung.

“I am so profoundly under-whelmed by this process and disappointed,” said Councilor Marjorie Decker. “I asked to be briefed along the way. We were not kept in the loop.”

Reeves said the report failed to address basic citizen concerns. “Us barbershop guys want to know if we can get arrested on our front porch,” he said. “All of the citizens concerns were avoided by a bunch of fluff, like everyone was a little bit at fault and whether we can all get along better.”