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Review by former SJC chief justice clears Cambridge police of excessive force

Former chief justice Roderick Ireland reviewed a 2018 Internal Affairs investigation that exonerated the Cambridge officers and offered his views on whether the city’s police department needed to revamp any of its use of force policies.
Former chief justice Roderick Ireland reviewed a 2018 Internal Affairs investigation that exonerated the Cambridge officers and offered his views on whether the city’s police department needed to revamp any of its use of force policies.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2010/Globe Staff

An independent review by the former chief justice of the state’s highest court concluded that Cambridge police acted properly when they tackled and punched a Harvard University student acting erratically on Massachusetts Avenue last year.

The encounter unfolded between police and the unclothed student around 9 p.m. on April 13, 2018, near Harvard Law School. It was captured on cellphone cameras by passersby and led some to allege that the officers used excessive force against the student, who is African-American.

The public criticism led city officials to ask former Supreme Judicial Court chief justice Roderick L. Ireland to review a 2018 Internal Affairs investigation that exonerated the officers, and offer his views on whether the city’s police department needed to revamp any of its use-of-force policies.

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“Rightly or wrongly, any event involving police will be looked at with some skepticism and questioning,’’ Ireland wrote in the report. “I conclude that the determination that the officers’ actions were within the policy of the Cambridge Police Department is correct and that the officers did not use excessive force when they subdued the student.”

In the 18-page report released Friday, Ireland concluded police acted appropriately during the confrontation with the 21-year-old student, whom they had encircled on a traffic island. Police had been told the man had taken a hallucinogenic drug, though he was later found to be having a mental health crisis. He was posing a danger to himself, police, and passersby, Ireland found.

He said police, who also included an MBTA Transit Police officer, tackled the student, punched the student once in the head and five times in the abdomen, and used a baton to pry his arms from underneath him.

At that point, police handcuffed him and placed him in leg irons before he was transported by ambulance to a hospital. The student faced criminal charges, but those were later dropped by Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan’s office.

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Ireland’s “conclusion that the officers’ conduct fell within permissible legal and policy guidelines speaks to an urgent need to reform the governing standards that control the amount and type of force officers are permitted to use on unarmed citizens,’’ the student’s attorney, Harvard Law School Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., wrote in an e-mail.

While saying he appreciates Ireland’s “diligent review,’’ Sullivan wrote that he found it “profoundly troubling” that “the law regards punching an unarmed Harvard student in the face and stomach multiple times as an appropriate method of ‘distraction.’”

Ireland said at least one witness shouted to police, “Let him breathe!” during the incident, a likely reaction to the 2014 death of Eric Garner, who was fatally injured by New York City police investigating illegal sales of single cigarettes.

“Many of the bystanders were very upset when the officers tackled the student and were seen punching him,’’ Ireland wrote. “Indeed it is upsetting to watch.”

Ireland, who is the first African-American to sit on the SJC and then became the first person of color to lead the state court system as chief justice, is a distinguished professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University.

Ireland wrote that he reviewed transcripts of interviews the officers gave to investigators, audio recordings of the radio conversations between dispatch and the officers, transcripts of interviews witnesses gave to police, a seven-minute cellphone video, and police reports.

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He said during the incident, which lasted about nine minutes, police tried to calm the student down; acted because he was a danger to himself, the officers and drivers; and were “factually accurate” in the written reports they later provided to investigators.

Ireland also noted that police were once trained to act like “warriors” but are now are tasked to act like “guardians” during violent and tense encounters with the public, especially when confronting someone struggling with a mental health crisis.

Based on his view, Ireland wrote that the officers acted like “guardians” who used only the proper amount of force necessary to secure the student and then stayed by and assisted his being put into an ambulance.

The student was sedated at the hospital, but not before he spat at an EMT and a police officer, even while wearing a mask. He also called out, “Help me, Jesus” at times, Ireland wrote.

Ireland wrote that he was not an expert on police training but noted the department’s training draws on the lessons learned from the 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by police inside his Cambridge home as officers investigated a report of a possible burglary.

Gates, who leads Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research Center, along with the arresting officer, James Crowley, later participated in what he became known as the “Beer Summit” with then-President Barack Obama.

Ireland made four recommendations:

■  The department should continue to pull in experts to periodically review the department’s policies and training to ensure they are keeping abreast with changes in the profession.

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■  Police commanders should conduct an internal review that won’t be made public to review the officers’ actions under the department’s rules and do so in future incidents.

■  The department should make sure officers are trained in how to deal with people with a major mental illness they may suddenly encounter.

■  The department should reach out to Harvard students, city residents, and explain why police used force during this incident and why police are trained to use force under limited circumstances.

“Such outreach is important, because it is difficult for the average layperson to look at this particular incident in isolation from the numerous cases that have occurred across the country in which black men have been subjected to overreactions or excessive force from police officers, including the Gates case that occurred right in Cambridge,” Ireland wrote.


John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.