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Experts say use of force in Harvard student’s arrest followed protocol

Cambridge police arrested a Harvard student Friday night, and experts on police tactics say the officers involved followed established law enforcement protocol. A video of the arrest has prompted criticism from city officials and the Harvard community.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Experts on police tactics say officers followed established law enforcement protocol when they used force to subdue a Harvard student on a Cambridge street Friday night, an encounter that has prompted criticism from some city officials and the Harvard community.

A video captured Cambridge and Transit Police tackling 21-year-old Selorm Ohene after calls reported him naked on a traffic island near the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Waterhouse Street, and one officer is shown repeatedly punching Ohene as others struggled to handcuff him. Police said they took the “tactical decision” to bring down Ohene to “gain his compliance and place him in handcuffs.”


Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the officers were adhering to standard police procedure.

“Unfortunately, there is nothing unusual about this,” Haberfeld said Tuesday.

Cambridge police follow a set of guidelines called a “force continuum” referenced by Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. Monday as he defended the officers’ actions, outlining a scale of force used against a resisting individual.

These standards allow officers to respond in a range of ways, from establishing their presence at a scene to inflicting lethal force. If an individual resists a less severe action, police are trained to escalate the amount of force used.

In cases like Ohene’s, where a police report said two women told officers that he might be under the influence of LSD and not fully cognizant, Haberfeld said the continuum of force still applies.

Over the past the two decades, the force continuum has been taught in police academies across the nation, Haberfeld said. After the Rodney King beating in 1991, alternative methods like deescalation techniques were adopted but they still exist on a continuum that can lead to use of force, she added.


Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, said that while the encounter is difficult to watch, officers were doing their job.

“It’s as the old saying goes, ‘people like sausage, but they don’t like how it’s made,’ ” Ellison said. “Things could have went differently, but I’m not going to second-guess their decisions.”

The situation was tricky, he said, because any responses would have drawn criticism. If they didn’t respond, then Ohene or a bystander could have gotten hurt, warranting the question: “Why didn’t they handle this?”

Furthermore, Ellison said police are trained to handle these situations in groups, in case the individual struggles free and grabs an officer’s weapon.

Another police expert said the punches may have been excessive.

“If I was investigating this, I wouldn’t find anything wrong besides, perhaps, the punches,” said Thomas Nolan, an associate professor of criminology at Merrimack College and a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department.

With Ohene unclothed, the police did not have anything to grab during the restraint, he said.

Additionally, officers would have still needed to restrain Ohene if paramedics were needed to transport him to the hospital.

“Otherwise, it was a expert textbook handling of the situation,” Nolan said.

On Tuesday, two Harvard Law School professors said they would represent Ohene. Professors Ronald F. Sullivan Jr. and Dehlia Umunna said Ohene would not provide a public account of what happened to him or be stepping into the public debate about whether police used excessive force during their encounter on Friday night.


“He is currently recovering from injuries sustained during his encounter with the Cambridge Police Department,’’ the attorneys wrote in a joint statement. “This has been and continues to be a trying ordeal for Selorm and for his family.”

The Police Department’s professional standards unit will conduct an internal inquiry into the incident, according to a spokesman.

Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern said the findings would be made public.

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this reports. Contact Jerome Campbell at