Cambridge police review backs officer in encounter
A Cambridge police sergeant acted appropriately during a chaotic October incident in which he detained a Dorchester man for allegedly bumping into him on the street, an internal review found.
Responding to a Globe story published Tuesday morning, a Cambridge Police Department statement said Detective Sergeant Thomas Ahern’s “actions were consistent with his duty obligations.”
Ahern’s behavior during the Oct. 13 encounter — and the department’s decision to pursue criminal charges against Cleon Hodge, 21, and two women who intervened on his behalf — have drawn criticism from civil rights groups.
The incident began a little after 6 p.m. on Massachusetts Avenue near Porter Square. In a police report, Ahern — who was on duty but dressed in plain clothes — alleged that Hodge made eye contact with him and didn’t get out of his way, intentionally walking into him.
Hodge, in an interview, disputed Ahern’s account and said he was looking down at text messages, glancing up every couple seconds, as he walked to the train station after work. He acknowledged seeing Ahern, but said the next thing he knew, the man’s shoulder was slamming into him.
Hodge acknowledged that he used profanity in demanding an apology from the man he said he believed walked into him, though their accounts differ on what happened next.
Ahern said he walked up to Hodge and displayed his badge, to which Hodge allegedly continued to swear at him and clenched his fists. Hodge said he raised his hands above his head as soon as he learned Ahern was a police officer.
Much of the rest of their interaction was captured on videos, which begin with Hodge’s hands up and Ahern holding Hodge’s sweatshirt. A crowd gathers as Ahern attempts to frisk Hodge with his free hand, occasionally fending off encroaching onlookers — some of whom question or taunt Ahern while others try to calm the tense situation. More officers arrive and appear to question witnesses and search Hodge’s pockets. Eventually, he is allowed to walk away.
Hodge faces assault and battery and disorderly conduct charges, and police on Tuesday disputed his claim that he was on the phone; the two women, whose names have not been released, face charges including assault and battery on a police officer and interfering with a police officer. The possible charges are pending, following a clerk’s hearing last week.
In its statement on Tuesday, Cambridge police said a 25-year-old Somerville woman is facing a possible assault charge because she “allegedly grabbed the right arm of Sergeant Ahern multiple times.” In the video, the woman appears to reach toward Ahern, though the angle and darkness obscure how much contact occurred.
The other woman, a 52-year-old from Cambridge who recorded most of the video, is accused of repeatedly encroaching on the personal space of Ahern, who at one point appears to knock the phone from her hand when she gets close to him. Recording police stops is legal; Ahern’s report alleges the woman repeatedly came too close to him, interfering with his work.
Ahern’s attempt to pat down Hodge would be authorized if he reasonably feared for his own safety, said Patrick Levin, an appellate attorney with the state’s public defender agency.
“The question for a court would be whether it was reasonable for Ahern to think Hodge was armed and dangerous under the circumstances,” Levin said in a e-mail.
While some civil liberties advocates questioned both the charges and Ahern’s tactics — “a textbook example of police overreach,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice — others familiar with police tactics and training were more circumspect.
“It looks to me like a very unfortunate situation,” said Jon Tiplady, a former Danvers police lieutenant who wrote that department’s use of force guidelines. An accumulation of factors — the growing crowd, a woman encroaching on Ahern’s space, Ahern not having a walkie talkie handy — contributed to the chaotic scene.
But the potential charges, he said, appeared to be a case of “C.Y.A. — you’re covering your a--,” and should not survive past the clerk magistrate hearings.
Espinoza-Madrigal said encounters like these have ripple effects far beyond those directly involved.
“This type of incident, where the police are proceeding in an aggressive and excessive manner against civilians — particularly citizens of color — raise a host of community policing problems,” he said. “It signals to victims of violence that they should be cautious when approaching the police.”