I reside in Cambridge. And, the last time an unarmed black Harvard man in Cambridge was arrested, it made the news. It was when renowned Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was mistakenly taken to be an unknown black man breaking and entering into someone’s home – it happened to be his – in 2009. It was a story that went viral internationally, leaving a pox on the city.
This recent arrest of an unarmed black Harvard man may go viral internationally, too, because the student is from Ghana and the Cambridge Police Department (CPD) prides itself in 2018 since the Gates arrest of being woke.
On Friday evening, April 13, Selorm Ohene, 21, was charged with indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, assault, resisting arrest, and assault and battery on ambulance personnel. The one incontrovertible fact all disputing parties-CPD officers, Harvard Black Law Students Association (BLSA), and eyewitnesses – can agree on is that Mr. Ohene was in crisis as he stood naked on a traffic island in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue near Waterhouse across from Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church.
A call to Harvard University Health Services (HUHS) was transferred immediately to the Cambridge Police Department (CPD) and not the Harvard University Police Department- a piece of the puzzle still awaiting a response.
How and why a pool of Ohene’s blood remained on the pavement as an ambulance transported him to a nearby hospital for evaluation fits sadly into the broader and disturbing narrative of America’s culture of police violence and brutality, systemic violation of black men’s civil rights and their bodily autonomy.
The appropriate use of force is always in dispute when police contest black men’s compliance, and their safety during the incident. And usually, the outcome is fatal. With Ohene, some say he’s lucky because, the outcome was a physical altercation and not his death.
Ohene was pummeled with punches repeatedly to his torso. The CPD report depicts Ohene as wildly combative that three officers from Cambridge Police and another officer from Transit Police were the needed enforcement to gain compliance, place him in handcuffs and “avoid further injury to himself.”
“Numerous attempts made by officers to calm the male down were met with opposition and his hostility escalated while officers attempted to speak with him,” a CPD official put out in a tweet. “After he was observed clinching both of his fists and started taking steps towards officers attempting to engage with the male, officers made the tactical decision to grab his legs and bring him to the ground.”
However, since CPD officers did not “adhere to their stated commitment to using body cameras” and they obstructed bystanders and the BLSA members efforts videotaping the incident transparency of their intentions, actions and of the entire incident from beginning to end will always leave doubt about that evening. And in recalling the event, the BLSA offered a counter-narrative that suggest the CPD officers had no understanding or schooling in trauma-informed training, crisis intervention training, mental health training, and de-escalation techniques. And if these officers did, it all went out of the window immediately seeing a black male.
“He was surrounded by at least four Cambridge Police Department (CPD) officers who, without provocation, lunged at him, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. While on the ground, at least one officer repeatedly punched the student in his torso as he screamed for help,” the BLSA statement reads.
Racial profiling immediately comes to mind when we hear of an incident with white police involving black and brown males. And with Ohene, a Harvard student, you wonder if he were a white student standing naked and obviously in distress along Cambridge Common in Harvard Square would he had been so dehumanized and humiliated.
On reporting the Cambridge incident, “The Grio,” the largest online news source of black America, stated that both “The Boston and Cambridge Police Departments are no different than those in the rest of the country. According to the ACLU, 63% of police stops in Boston between 2007 and 2010 targeted Black residents, even though Black residents make up less than 25% of the population. As of 2015, the Boston Police Department (BPD) had spent approximately $36 million to settle lawsuits, most of which were tied to wrongful convictions and police misconduct.”
While 30 onlookers were stunned and emotionally troubled by the police handling of Ohene, the use of force against him, according to Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard, Jr., was an appropriate tactical decision within police procedure.
However, many Cambridge residents, especially of African descent are not pleased with Bard’s handling of and public responses to the incident.
“In a rapidly-evolving situation, as this was, the officers primary objective is to neutralize an incident to ensure the safety of the involved party(ies), officers, and members of the public,” Bard wrote. “To prevent the altercation from extending and leading to further injuries, particularly since the location of the engagement was next to a busy street with oncoming traffic, the officers utilized their discretion and struck the individual in the mid-section to gain his compliance and place him in handcuffs.”
With just eight months under his belt, Bard, who is African American, is CPD’s new commissioner and is an expert in the study of ending racial profiling. Bard holds a doctorate in public administration from Valdosta State University, and a leadership certificate from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His doctoral studies had a focus on racial profiling, racially biased policing, immigration, the Bill of Rights and public policy, and Bard’s the author of a 2014 book, “Racial Profiling: Towards Simplicity and Eradication.” Bard promises a cultural shift within the police force under his watch.
After Gates arrest, Cambridge City Hall released a report to the public called “Missed Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities.” One of the findings in the report is that “When police believe they are not in physical danger, they generally should deescalate tensions … [which] can be a tool for helping to reduce danger by calming a person who is upset or unstable.”
Had the arresting officers read this report along with employing the appropriate training techniques Ohene could have been helped- without five blows to the torso and a pool of his blood left on the pavement.