The Cambridge Police Department on Tuesday released documents that detail the agency’s policy on when to use force, reversing an earlier decision. The department previously said publicly disclosing the policy would endanger officers.
Cambridge posted the use of force policy online Tuesday, along with guidelines for reviewing incidents when officers fire their guns or restrain a suspect.
In an accompanying statement, the department said the shift toward disclosure followed “an ongoing, constructive dialogue within the police department, city manager’s office, and between the police and the Cambridge community.”
“The Cambridge Police Department recognizes and respects the public’s desire for transparency within government agencies,” the statement reads. “We believe that transparency can reinforce trust between the police and the communities they serve.”
The Boston Globe reported last week that Cambridge had rejected a public records request submitted by the online news site MuckRock. Cambridge police spokesman Jeremy Warnick said at the time 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.”
Two other large police departments, Boston and Somerville, provided their use of force policies upon request, as have many law enforcement agencies nationwide.
In releasing the policy Tuesday, Cambridge pointed to MuckRock’s public records request as a catalyst, as well as a White House task force report last month recommending that use of force policies be open to public inspection.
The documents establish the appropriate level of force to deal with specific situations. In cases involving use of deadly force by law enforcement officials, such as the shooting and killing of Usaamah Rahim last week by a Boston police officer and an FBI agent, the policy dictates what happens next with reporting and reviewing the incident.
Like Boston and Somerville, Cambridge directs officers to use the least amount of force necessary. The Cambridge police policy, which was last updated in 2011, permits officers to fire their weapons only to protect against “a threat of death or serious bodily injury,” or to make a felony arrest under narrow circumstances.
The policy requires officers to give a verbal warning before pulling the trigger, if possible. Even if they do not fire, officers must report all incidents when they point their firearm at a suspect. Cambridge posted a blank copy of this reporting form on the department website, along with procedures police supervisors follow when investigating use of force incidents.
After using any forceful tactic, officers must evaluate suspects to determine whether they need medical attention. Cambridge officers may not use chokeholds, nor can they carry unauthorized weapons such as blackjacks, nunchakus, or brass knuckles.
Before Tuesday, details of Cambridge’s use of force policy and standards were not known.
Open government advocates lauded the policy’s release but criticized Cambridge police for rejecting the original request.
“There was no legitimate basis for Cambridge to have withheld its use of force policy in the first place, but our weak public records law allows officials to keep information from the public without consequence,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
“The [Cambridge police department] now appears to be in the company of other police departments who acted in accordance with the state’s public records law,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, which supports expanded public access to governmental agencies and documents.
“This type of transparency is essential in maintaining trust between the public and its law enforcement,” Silverman said.
Shawn Musgrave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.