Cambridge police investigating after officer hit black Harvard student

Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern called a video depicting an officer striking the student "disturbing."
Published : April 16, 2018 Updated : April 16, 2018
Photo: Pixabay

A video of a Cambridge Police Officer punching a black Harvard student while he was physically restrained has prompted an investigation, the result of which will be made public, Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern assured.

 

Cambridge Police officers responded on Friday night to multiple 911 calls reporting a naked man of color who allegedly threw his clothes in a woman’s face.

 

After arriving on scene at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Waterhouse, the police were met with “opposition” and hostility, according to the department, when they attempted to calm down the man, later identified as 21-year-old Selorm Ohene.

 

Three police officers and a Transit Police officer pinned Ohene — who may have been on hallucinogenic drugs, an acquaintance told police — to the ground in an attempt to restrain him, according to the department.

 

A video of the incident, captured by a bystander, shows the officers grabbing Ohene’s legs and taking him to the ground, and then one officer striking Ohene as the others try to restrain him.

In a redacted police report, Officer Steven Burke wrote, “Unable to pry Ohene's hands from underneath his body, I delivered approximately 5 strikes with a closed fists to the area of his stomach.”

“What is shown on the video is disturbing,” McGovern said in a statement released Sunday. “We have high standards for our police officers in Cambridge. In most cases, the extensive training our offices go through results in de-escalation of dangerous situations. When confrontations cannot be averted and include the use of physical force, we must be willing to review our actions to ensure that our police officers are proving the highest level of safety for all.”

Ohene was charged with indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, assault, resisting arrest and assault and battery on an ambulance personnel.

“Because use of force was required in order to gain compliance from Ohene to avoid further injury to himself, the responding officers or any on-lookers,” Cambridge police said in a statement, “an internal review will be conducted by the department’s leadership and professional standards unit.”

In the wake of the incident, the Harvard Black Law Students Association was calling for Harvard University to create an internal crisis response team to support students in a way that does not involve the Cambridge Police Department.

“The university has ample resources that could have, and should have, been mobilized to come to the student’s aid prior to CPD getting involved,” the student group said in a statement. Harvard University Health Services (HUHS) were the first to be called, they noted.

“Instead of sending staff to support the student, HUHS transferred callers to CPD, who then responded as police often do whether cameras are rolling or not — by failing to appropriately respond to the individual needs of the person concerned and resorting to violence unnecessarily and with impunity,” the statement continued. “By involving CPD, HUHS put this student at great risk of being killed by the police.”

Harvard President Drew Faust commented on the incident in a letter to the Harvard community on Monday, calling the events "profoundly disturbing." She said that Harvard has been in touch with the police and the city of Cambridge and will also look into what the university can "learn from the incident."

"A Harvard student was in obvious distress, and we need to understand how that came to be and whether we could have interceded earlier and more effectively," Faust wrote.  "We have been witness to the use of force against a member of our community, which, regardless of circumstances, is upsetting and compels the search for a deeper understanding."

McGovern has promised that the public will be informed of any developments regarding the investigation. 

“Cambridge affirms that Black Lives Matter,” he said in a statement, “but it must be true in practice as well.” 
 

 
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