Cambridge police are refusing to publicly release documents that detail the agency’s policy on when to use force, saying such a disclosure might put officers at risk.
The online news site MuckRock filed a public records request seeking the documents amid nationwide calls for law enforcement to clarify protocols following high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of officers in New York, Baltimore, and Ferguson, Mo.
Two other large police departments, Boston and Somerville, provided their use of force policies in full.
The documents establish the level of force that is appropriate to deal with specific situations, and make clear when officers may fire at suspects, physically restrain them, or use other tactics. When law enforcement officials use deadly force, such as in Tuesday’s shooting of Usaama Rahim by a Boston police officer and an FBI agent in Roslindale, the policy dictates what happens next, including reporting and reviewing the incident.
In an e-mail last month, Cambridge Police Department spokesman Jeremy Warnick replied that releasing the policy would hamper investigations, and “more importantly, officers following these policies and procedures may also be placed at risk when engaging dangerous suspects.”
By contrast, the Boston Police Department posts its entire manual online, including use-of-force procedures. The Somerville Police Department provided a copy of its policy within hours of a public records request being filed and without any material being blacked out.
“As many eyes as you can have on it, the better,” Lieutenant Mike McCarthy, a Boston police spokesman, said about the Boston police policy.
“They’re not just to outline what’s expected of officers,” McCarthy said, noting that use of force protocols are as much for the public as for officers on patrol. “It’s important to educate the public on what we’re instructed to do.”
The Boston police policy, for instance, forbids officers from firing warning shots. Officers may pull the trigger when “there is no less drastic means available” to defend themselves or others from an attacker.
Warnick, in summarizing his department’s policy, said Cambridge likewise directs officers to use “only a reasonable and necessary amount of force” when making an arrest.
But Cambridge police would not provide actual language from the policy, citing two exemptions to the Massachusetts public records statute. The first exemption allows agencies to withhold internal personnel rules, but only “to the extent that proper performance of necessary governmental functions requires such withholding.” The second provision permits law enforcement to withhold investigatory materials if their disclosure would hinder effective law enforcement.
Warnick said that “public disclosure of these policies and procedures would enable individuals to circumvent such procedures.”
Open government advocates said they disagreed with the Cambridge Police Department’s reading of the statute, as well as the suggestion that releasing the policy would endanger officers.
“The public needs to know how its law enforcement operates, particularly when it comes to the use of force against citizens,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, which supports expanded public access to governmental agencies and documents.
“The public records law provides exemptions, but narrow ones that do not allow a police department to withhold documents based on vague concerns,” Silverman said.
A White House task force report released last month emphasized that police departments should have comprehensive policies and training on the use of force. The task force specifically recommended that such “policies must be clear, concise, and openly available for public inspection.”
Laurie Robinson, co-chair of the White House task force and professor of criminology at George Mason University, views transparency as critical for effective law enforcement.
“Having key policies open to public inspection — whether posted online or available at the police department — is very important for the public to have confidence in policing in their community,” Robinson said.
Cambridge City Hall declined to comment on the police department’s response. The matter is on appeal with the state public records supervisor.
Shawn Musgrave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.