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Officers Who Arrested Black Student Had Not Taken Extra Training on Engaging Mentally Ill Individuals

Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr.
Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr.
The Cambridge Police Department officers who forcibly arrested a black Harvard student April 13 “have yet to participate” in non-mandatory crisis intervention training meant to instruct officers how to manage situations involving mentally ill individuals, according to CPD spokesperson Jeremy Warnick.

The 40-hour crisis training “supplements” the mandatory training officers receive every year, Warnick wrote in an email to The Crimson Monday.

The crisis intervention training is not required, according to the website of the Somerville Police Department, which also offers the training. CPD is one of roughly 20 local police departments that have committed to putting at least 10 percent of its officers through the training, per the site.

CPD aims to surpass that 10 percent threshold, though. “The goal is to train the entire department on this training,” the department's website states. Warnick wrote that CPD is “in the process” of making the training “available to the entire department.”

Roughly one-third of CPD’s officers and all supervisors have taken the training to date, Warnick wrote. The program is meant to help officers understand how to respond to situations involving individuals experiencing “mental illness,” according to the CPD website. As of last week, the arrested student remained in police custody in the hospital undergoing evaluation for issues including mental health concerns.

Three of the four CPD officers at the scene of the arrest—Steven C. Burke, Lucas Harney, and Casimir Maziarz—physically engaged with the undergraduate before arresting him. The fourth, Alexander Illyinski, was “covering the perimeter” and was not involved in the physical altercation, according to Warnick.

The arrest of the student has sparked allegations of police brutality from some eyewitnesses. A later CPD police report states the student—who was naked and likely under the influence of narcotics—clenched his fists and began making aggressive moves towards law enforcement, prompting the officers to tackle him.

But bystanders, including members of the Harvard Black Law Students Association, have stated that CPD’s version of events is incorrect. BLSA members who saw the interaction have stated that the officers tackled the student “without provocation.”

A video of the incident later published by the New York Times shows the undergraduate standing still surrounded by four officers while the officers talk to him for at least several seconds. The student turns around and takes two steps towards one officer before taking a step back and raising his arms to chest-level. Another officer then tackles the student from behind.

While the student remained on the ground, at least one CPD officer punched the undergraduate in the stomach five times in an “ineffective” attempt to unpin the student’s arms and handcuff him, according to the CPD police report. The student was ultimately arrested on charges including indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, and assault.

It is currently unclear when or if the student will be arraigned; CPD Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. said at a press conference last week that the arraignment has been delayed in part due to concerns about the undergraduate’s mental health.

CPD offers details about the crisis training on a section of their website labeled “Mental Health Outreach.”

“The 40-hour CIT training program offers technical assistance on effective strategies for best engaging with persons who have mental illness, diverting them from the criminal justice system and into treatment when that is a safe and appropriate option,” the website reads.

The department’s crisis intervention training is run in partnership with the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health, Warnick wrote.

The crisis training comes in addition to several mandatory annual programs for CPD officers. All department officers are required to attend in-service trainings, which include sessions about “Fair & Impartial Policing, Procedural Justice, Mental Health First Aid, Management of Aggressive Behavior, Diffusing Aggressive Behavior, Law Enforcement Response to Mental Illness and Emotionally Disturbed People, among other sessions that assist officers in engaging with individuals who may be in crisis,” according to Warnick.

Thomas Nolan—professor of criminology and criminal justice at Merrimack College—said he commends CPD for their efforts to hold crisis intervention trainings for their officers.

“Crisis intervention training, as we see the necessity for in 2018, includes a recognition of the officers’ ability to see that someone is in distress and has some kind of mental disorder that needs some kind of special attention or a special response that is specific to the situation,” Nolan said.

“The value of the crisis intervention training is to be able to train officers to see this is a different kind of situation—this isn’t someone who is looking to do me harm—this is someone who is in significant mental distress, and I need to adopt different strategy to deal with this individual,” Nolan added.

Warnick wrote Monday that de-escalation forms a central theme across all trainings the department offers.

“The wide range of trainings we have made available to officers when dealing with people in crisis has also extended to special instruction from Strategies from Youth on ‘Policing the Teenage Brain’ and our newer officers receiving a 12-hour ‘Law Enforcement Response to Mental Illness and Emotionally Disturbed People’ class in the Police Academy,” Warnick wrote.

Warnick wrote that CPD has two “in-house Mental Health Outreach Officers” trained in First Aid and First Aid response for mental health. He wrote that both offer “insight and instruction” within the department as well as more broadly around the region.

Warnick also reaffirmed that CPD had jurisdiction to make the arrest, even though Harvard University Police Department has “primary jurisdiction over all crimes occurring on campus.”

The Crimson previously reported that CPD had jurisdiction because the student—who was arrested at the intersection of Massachusetts Ave. and Waterhouse St., feet from Harvard Law School’s campus—was not standing on campus and was thus outside the jurisdiction of HUPD.

Nolan, a former officer in the Boston Police Department, said he does not think any type of additional training would have prevented the physical altercation April 13.

“I think that the cops, no matter what kind of training they had, were confronted with an individual who was being combative and aggressive and non-compliant, and I think they did what they needed to do,” Nolan said. “Certainly officers need to restrain their impulse; if it’s a situation where the officer lost his temper, that’s never appropriate.”

CPD is conducting an internal review in the wake of the arrest given the incident involved a use of force. CPD policy mandates the department must conduct this kind of review any time force is used.

—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at caroline.engelmayer@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.

—Staff writer Michael E. Xie can be reached at michael.xie@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEXie1.

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