In early June, as a wave of Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation and police departments faced renewed scrutiny, the Cambridge police commissioner stood before the City Council and made a declaration: “We don’t get military equipment. We don’t have any at all,” said Branville Bard Jr. “We don’t have tanks, we don’t have anything like that.”
The statement set off a firestorm, particularly from City Councilor Quinton Zondervan, who lambasted the commissioner for peddling “not factually correct” statements.
More than a month later, amid mounting pressure from Zondervan and citizens, the Cambridge Police Department released an inventory of all its holdings. Nestled between rolling cabinets, staplers, and bulletin boards were line items for a dozen sniper rifles, a BearCat armored vehicle, and 64 M4 assault rifles, the primary weapon of Army and Marine combat units. Tear gas, which is banned in Cambridge, also was discovered and promptly destroyed.
Even in Cambridge, where the sidewalks are stamped with Black Lives Matter logos and whose Black police commissioner focused his doctoral studies on racial profiling and racially based policing, police officials appear to harbor the same aversion to transparency as more blatantly problematic departments across the nation.
The demilitarization of the police has become a central theme of the rallying cries to defund departments across the country. Activists argue that the more robust a police department‘s arsenal of military weapons, the more likely officers are to use those weapons to intimidate and repress their communities rather than serve and protect them. Hundreds of Cambridge residents have submitted public comment over the past two months in support of redirecting a $4.1 million increase in the police budget toward health and safety measures. Bard, meanwhile, has labeled these efforts as “unthoughtful” and even “harmful.”
The tussle over the role of policing in the liberal bastion of Cambridge is a glimpse at the messy sequel to the wave of protests that swept the nation after George Floyd’s death. Few, including Bard himself, disagree with the three-word mantra at the core of the movement. But there is little consensus within the city government as to how to deliver on the movement’s demands, namely what degree of restructuring of the police department is appropriate.
When pressed to explain his claim that Cambridge lacked military equipment, Bard denied any deceit.
“I would never play a semantic game with you, I have no interest in splitting hairs or being coy — when I say ‘the department does not possess military materials’ — I mean in the context that we do not possess materials that are restricted only to the military by law [and exempted to civilian law enforcement],” Bard wrote in an addendum included in the council meeting last week.
Many see Bard’s argument and the department’s reluctance to release the inventory as an example of why police departments cannot be left to regulate themselves.
On June 25, resident Xavier Dietrich made a public records request for an annual report created by the police commissioner of “all the receipts and expenditures of his Department” and “an itemized statement of all the materials, tools and properties of every kind belonging to the City on hand June 30 with their estimated values,” but he was told “the city does not possess documentation responsive to [the] request.” Four days later, Councilors Zondervan and Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler ordered the list. It was finally released a month later, on July 27.
Alex Vitale, a former Cambridge resident and current professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who has studied police practices for 25 years, admitted he was surprised the inventory was released at all, given how difficult it is to obtain such lists nationwide.
“Generally, police departments won’t tell us what weapons they have,” said Vitale. “They won’t tell us how they’re using it. But they want carte blanche to just do whatever they want, and that results in a tremendous amount of misuse of this type of equipment.”
The militarization of the police finds its roots in the 1033 Program introduced by the Clinton administration in 1997. Since the program’s inception, the Department of Defense has given away $7.4 billion of excess equipment to 8,000-plus law enforcement agencies, which only pay shipping costs, according to the Law Enforcement Support Office, the federal branch created to oversee the program.
The program has been plagued by waste, fraud, and abuse. Media reports in the wake of unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after police shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014 revealed departments — such as that in West Springfield, Mass. — had been outfitted with the likes of grenade launchers and weaponized aircraft. In some cases, assault rifles and military Humvees obtained through the program had gone missing. In a glaring example of the program’s lack of accountability, a fake law enforcement agency, created by the General Accountability Office during a 2017 sting operation, received $1.2 million in military equipment.
The Cambridge department no longer participates in the 1033 Program. A spokesman said all rifles once obtained through the program were returned “several years ago.”
But the department still relies somewhat on federal authorities to obtain tactical equipment. Cambridge received a Lenco BearCat armored vehicle after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing through a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. Vitale called this process a recipe for “mission creep,” wherein tactical equipment is obtained after singular extreme events but is then used for other purposes.
But Bard defended the department’s arsenal. “It is not so much a matter of ‘it could happen here’ — it does happen here,” he wrote in the addendum. “At first blush it may sound harsh, but as a general rule you cannot allow your police department to be overpowered.”
Activists and residents argued that the role of a police department should not be defined by the department itself but rather the citizens it aims to protect.
“Like many of the citizens here, I am dismayed to learn how much combat armaments and gear our CPD has — and more so because they were not upfront about possessing it,” wrote Judith Grossman in a letter submitted to the July 27 City Council meeting. “We aren’t a high crime city, and this gear is absolutely inappropriate.”
After a meeting that saw residents calling in with renewed demands to defund the police and an officer calling the discussion a “little game to keep up with a national movement,” Cambridge city councilors opted to send the discussion about the inventory off to the Public Safety Committee.
“There’s a lot in this report and a lot of other questions that I have, things to dig into about what the role of policing in Cambridge is and what role this equipment serves in different purposes,” Councilor Sobrinho-Wheeler said.
No date has been set for that committee meeting.