Too often, when people call the police seeking help, they get responses that compound rather than address a harm. What if they could be provided with other options? In addition to meeting people’s immediate needs, what if jurisdictions could address the root causes of problems citizens face?
One night in July 2020, Jacqueline Kung heard someone crying outside of her Cambridge, Massachusetts, apartment. She stepped outside to see what was happening and saw five police officers surrounding a handcuffed young Black man.
“I thought something’s really wrong here because it’s not like there’s some kind of obvious crime going on and he’s crying,” says Kung, 42, an endocrinologist. “And why are there so many police?”
Kung knew what to do. She whipped out her cell phone and started recording. She wasn’t the only one: About 20 to 30 people from her building captured video as well, including children and her husband.
It turns out the young man’s mother had just died inside their home. The look on his face and his body language reminded Kung of times when her patients died from COVID-19, and how their families keened in anguish: “The family can be distraught, hysterical; that’s understandable,” she says. “Sometimes they react in ways where they’re yelling, or they’re trying to get into the patient’s room, even though we don’t think that’s a good idea.”
A police officer approached Kung, declaring, “There’s nothing going on,” and telling her she didn’t need to record anything because the young man was “having a mental health crisis.” Kung identified herself as a physician who could help, but the officer said, “No,” and again told her to stop recording.
“I’m not recording him. I’m recording you,” she told the cop.
The officer’s response, and the fact that law enforcement canceled ambulance calls to the scene that night, left a bad taste, says Kung, who filed a complaint with the police department. She later channeled her angst into working with a policing alternative called Cambridge HEART (Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team), a community-led, proactive public safety program that aims to address the immediate needs of people in conflict or crisis.
Kung believes mutual aid organizations like HEART could be a way to make sure people get medical care or social services without police getting in the way or harming them further.
Cambridge has a reputation for being a highly educated, posh, and mostly White (64%) town. It also has a reputation for instituting aggressive policing tactics, particularly against poor and Black people (10%). One study found that across a 10-year period, more than 40% of people arrested in Cambridge were Black. These behaviors by the police make the town similar to places across the nation that grapple with everything from the slow violence of profiling and handcuffing to more deadly forms. In many of these locations, “alternatives to policing” programs have gathered momentum.
The people behind HEART confront racist policing in Cambridge, home of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge police attracted national attention in 2009 when officers arrested iconic Black professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., while he was trying to enter his own home. In another incident, then-Cambridge Police Department Lt. Shawn Lynch reacted approvingly to racist social media posts, including a news article about police brutality, as well as a tweet about the 2020 police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
At Harvard, meanwhile, Anthony T. Carvello, a White police officer, has been criticized for his use of violence in several separate incidents against Black men in 2020. He reportedly used racial slurs and pepper sprayed one of the men.
When four police officers tackled an unarmed, naked Black Harvard student, an officer punched him in the stomach several times. The Harvard Black Law Students Association called this out as brutality. As in Cambridge, available data indicate that Harvard’s police department arrests Black people at a disproportionate rate, according to reporting by The Harvard Crimson newspaper.
Cambridge city officials responded to resident calls for public safety alternatives by establishing the Community Safety Department. And the city has signaled an intention to outsource certain responses to HEART, according to Councilor Quinton Zondervan.
Cities like Denver; Oakland, California; and Lynn, Massachusetts, have launched alternative public safety programs in response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Residents interested in a nontraditional path to public safety must also navigate politics and government leaders who appear to only be interested in surface-level change.
In Denver, groups like the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response argue that the widely popular Denver STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) co-opts residents’ initial vision for a true alternative by not addressing root causes of harm in their communities. Citizens generally support STAR’s efforts but complain that the police department often makes decisions without community input.
In Oakland, community members began researching and organizing for an alternative to police response after officers shot and killed a sleeping, unhoused man in 2017. The Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO), a community response program for nonviolent, nonemergency 911 calls, was then adopted and funded to respond to those calls. However, according to MACRO leaders, the city began undermining the program: blocking community engagement and support, failing to dispatch appropriate calls, and refusing to provide transparency.
Finally, in Lynn, near Boston, officials were praised for allocating $500,000 in 2021 to develop the All Lynn Emergency Response Team (ALERT). But the activists who advocated for this alternative worry that the city government’s approach centers police interests, such as sending armed police to accompany the responders or even housing the new response team within the police department. They also say a new mayoral administration cut the community out of planning for and implementation of ALERT, while heavily involving police.
Likewise, Zondervan has called Cambridge’s Community Safety Department alternative a “police approach” that is city-driven rather than community-driven. And Cambridge HEART leaders, like Kung, criticized the approach, noting the department would have access to police radios and relay calls to police. To what extent, she asks, is this a real alternative to policing?
That night in 2020, Kung asked the police officer if an ambulance would be coming, and he said, “Yes.” Kung recalls thinking, “OK, that’s good because I don’t think police are the right people to respond.” She later found out officers canceled the call twice.
The officer, says Kung, “was aggressive” and continued to pressure her to stop recording. Now afraid, she asked for his name and badge number, but he refused to give it. And because Kung had seen similar situations before, she felt very strongly that aggressive policing was not the way to deal with grief caused by the loss of a loved one: “If they’re yelling or crying or trying to push their way into the patient’s room, we never handcuff them! It’s not necessary. It’s not right.”
“They handcuffed him and walked him to his mother’s body like he was a criminal,” she says.
Kung was so shocked that she discussed the incident with a woman who also lives in her neighborhood – only to be alarmed once more when the woman told her she had a similar experience with police. The woman said when her mother died in a nursing home, she had become distraught and the police officer told her husband he had better get her under control, or the officer would have to do something.
That’s when Kung realized: “This is not a one-time thing.”
‘I was thinking, I’m not a criminal, and I know that, but how are regular people going to be able to voice their concerns with the police if this is the way they are treated?’
That’s also when Kung filed a complaint with the Cambridge Police Department and contacted the city council. She asked to speak with the police officers involved, and the police chief seemed eager to take her up on that offer. But when the civilian review board contacted Kung, “They told me, the police chief said you wanted to withdraw your complaint.”
The review board official told her if she agreed to speak with the officers who were involved, they would consider that mediation and would automatically withdraw her complaint. So Kung decided not to speak with them.
Kung then gathered video evidence of the incident from her neighbors. But one neighbor, a Black woman, asked her name to be kept out of it. She’d had a bad experience with Cambridge police when she filed a complaint before. Just like that, Kung had now learned about three bad experiences with police in her neighborhood: the young man in distress, the woman whose mother had died, and now this neighbor.
Kung gave all the videos to the police, who didn’t seem interested in conducting an investigation, asking, “What do you expect us to do, knock on every door?”
When asked by police to come in for an in-person interview, she arrived with her husband for support, but the police refused to let him come in with her. Then officers took her to an interrogation room, locked the door, and screamed at her.
“I was thinking, I’m not a criminal, and I know that, but how are regular people going to be able to voice their concerns with the police if this is the way they are treated?” Kung asks.
Months later, Kung received a letter saying the complaint was resolved. While acknowledging the officer’s rudeness and improper failure to identify, it essentially said the police did nothing wrong.
Kung was changed by her experience and is especially wary of police power to override the power of those who come to help.
“Even the 911 dispatcher was afraid or hesitant to allow the ambulance to come because the police had canceled it,” she says.
Meanwhile, Cambridge HEART has privately raised over $900,000 and is already providing mutual aid services in response to calls. One woman facing domestic violence and a dire financial situation was connected to the Margaret Fuller House, a mutual aid organization that helps people get out of debt. She received financial and housing support through other mutual aid networks and has been connected to long-term services.
Needless to say, though distressed, she was not arrested.
Spencer Piston is an associate professor of political science at Boston University.