Action Alert:

The Cambridge Police Department Should Demilitarize

More than 1,000 people gathered in front of Cambridge City Hall for a Black Lives Matter protest, organized by Defend Black Lives Cambridge, June 20, 2020. Erin Clark/Boston Globe Photo More than 1,000 people gathered in front of Cambridge City Hall for a Black Lives Matter protest, organized by Defend Black Lives Cambridge, June 20, 2020. Erin Clark/Boston Globe Photo

by Andrew King

Testimony Presented at the Police Militarization Hearing, Cambridge City Council, January 6, 2021.   View the video

My name is Andrew King and I live at 40 Essex St. Cambridge, MA. I’m a member of Massachusetts Peace Action, whose members include hundreds of Cambridge residents. We strongly oppose militarization of domestic police forces.

I remember attending a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in 2016 in Central Square that was organized by CRLS high school activists. After several open mic poetry readings, several of us wandered down Main Street. We were shocked when we found ourselves staring down the barrel of a large-caliber gun of an armored tank, sitting in the parking lot across from Bertuccis, lying in wait, ready to maintain law-and-order if necessary. Needless to say, this was a harrowing sight to see in the heart of our purportedly progressive and multi-cultural city. It brought to mind the notorious military-style crackdown that Ferguson police waged against the city’s African-American youth and families.

Since its inception in 1997, the military surplus equipment transfer program, also known as the 1033 Program, has transferred over $7 billion in military equipment including military assault rifles, armored tanks, and helicopters to 8,000 local police departments across the country.[1] The 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, launched a nationwide movement for Black Lives, which shined a spotlight on this increased militarization of policing which disproportionately impacts low-income communities of color. (1033 is a residual program of the failed War on Drugs which led to the criminalization and mass incarceration of millions in black and brown communities across the country.)

A recent inventory spearheaded by City Councilors Zondervan and Sobrinho-Wheeler, found that the Cambridge Police Department –which prides itself in being a progressive, community-oriented law enforcement agency – has 94 military-grade assault and sniper rifles, 11 shotguns, and an armored vehicle. Research shows that arming local police officers with military equipment can increase their use of violent force; it contributes to a war-like mentality against the communities they are supposed to be serving. A militarized police force will only serve to intimidate and exacerbate the disproportionately negative impacts of policing on Cambridge’s historically disenfranchised residents.

In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, Cambridge youth and families joined thousands of others in cities across the nation in taking to the streets in nonviolent protest to call for racial justice. Our city should learn from the systemic failures of other militarized police departments around the country – such as the NYPD and the Louisville police department – that responded to their citizens with violent repression and “aggressive tactics that violated the first Amendment rights of protesters,” leading to thousands of arrests and the shooting death of a peaceful demonstrator in Louisville.[2]  Studies also show that, in addition to being unsafe, the 1033 program is ineffective and fails to reduce crime or improve police safety.[3]

The recent racial justice demonstrations have sparked a national conversation on police violence and militarization, and the reimagining of what public safety would look like if we repurposed excessive funding for policing towards prevention and human needs programs in under-resourced communities. The City of Cambridge has a real opportunity today to live up to its progressive ideals of racial justice and equity, tolerance, and peace, by taking this first step towards police reform.

[1] Briant Barrett, “The Pentagon’s Hand-Me-Downs Helped Militarize Police. Here’s How,” Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/pentagon-hand-me-downs-militarize-police-1033-program/ .

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/18/nyregion/nypd-george-floyd-protests.html

[3] Jonathan Mummolo, “Militarization fails to enhance police safety or reduce crime but may harm police reputation,” PNAS. https://www.pnas.org/content/115/37/9181 .