The Cambridge Police Department is under scrutiny after law enforcement officers pinned a naked black Harvard student to the ground and one officer punched him in the stomach multiple times, adding fuel to the ongoing debate about race, policing, and use of force.
On the evening of April 13, officers responded to multiple calls that a naked man was walking around Cambridge and acting erratically. The man, identified in police reports as 21-year-old Selorm Ohene, is a Harvard undergraduate. When officers arrived on the scene they confronted him, and the police department released a video recorded by a bystander of what happened next.
In the video, you can see Ohene standing on a median in a busy street as the group of officers approach him. They then move closer and grab him, and he flails and yells. According to the police report, one of the officers struck Ohene five times.
[WARNING: Video contains graphic content.]
Ohene was charged with disorderly conduct, indecent exposure, and resisting arrest. He was also charged with assault after spitting blood and saliva at a responding EMT. Ohene is currently in the hospital under police custody.
The officers involved in the incident have not yet been placed on leave.
The police report states that the officers used force after Ohene did not respond to verbal commands and after he began to move toward them with clenched fists, and that the officer struck Ohene to get him to comply with the arrest.
In an email to students and community members on Monday, Harvard president Drew Faust called the incident “profoundly disturbing.” Members of Harvard’s Black Law Students Association, some of whom witnessed Ohene’s arrest, called the incident a “brutal instance of police violence,” noting that a pool of blood was left in the spot where Ohene was arrested.
And in a Tuesday statement, Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern called the video disturbing. “Cambridge affirms that Black Lives Matter, but it must be true in practice as well,” he added.
The controversial arrest comes at a time of heightened attention to racial disparities in police use of force. In March, Sacramento police shot an unarmed black man, Stephon Clark, while he was a holding a cellphone in his backyard. Clark’s death led to widespread protests.
The Harvard student incident has sparked a wider discussion of police brutality and race
Several studies show that there are significant racial disparities in police use of force. While this is usually attributed to issues like implicit bias and systemic racism, high levels of housing segregation and economic inequality also play a role in where police shootings occur and whom they affect.
It’s important to gauge officers’ actions in the context of highly stressful, “rapidly evolving” situations, Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville Bard said during a press conference on Monday. To judge them “with 20-20 hindsight,” he continued, is unfair.
Bard argued that the officers adhered to appropriate procedure, noting that the Cambridge department uses a “force continuum” approach that allows officers to increase the amount of force used when necessary, moving from verbal commands to the use of less than lethal force.
Students who witnessed the incident disagree, saying that the officers responded excessively to a man in distress. “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 Harvard Black Law Students Association said in a statement, explaining that university health services received calls about Ohene but transferred those calls to the local police.
“By involving CPD, HUHS [Harvard University Health Services] put this student at great risk of being killed by the police,” the law students said.
Harvard students are asking for the university to create a crisis response team independent of the police department, and for the officers involved to be held accountable.
On April 16, the police department said it is considering dropping the charges against Ohene depending on the results of a mental health evaluation.
And on Tuesday, a pair of Harvard law professors who are acting as Ohene’s attorneys released a statement, saying, “the video speaks for itself.”