Metro

Adrian Walker

In Cambridge, old-fashioned police overreaction meets cellphone video

Top Cambridge police officials arrived for a news conference on Monday.
Jim Davis/Globe Staff
Top Cambridge police officials arrived for a news conference on Monday.

The widely circulating video of Cambridge police officers subduing and arresting Selorm Ohene last Friday night is silent but chilling.

The black Harvard University student is on the ground near Cambridge Common, naked and surrounded. Police say he was under the influence of hallucinogens. Three Cambridge officers and one member of the Transit Police were involved in taking him into custody, and the video clearly shows Ohene being struck multiple times and manhandled.

The incident has set off a firestorm in Cambridge, and no wonder. Police have struggled to explain why taking the student into custody required so much force. Black Harvard students have rallied to the defense of their classmate. Cambridge elected officials have rushed to proclaim themselves alarmed by the incident.

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Even Harvard president Drew Faust has proclaimed herself deeply disturbed, and how often does a Harvard president issue a statement about local police brutality?

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The confrontation began when police responded to a 911 call from a woman who said a naked man had thrown his clothes in her face. Multiple other callers reported seeing a naked man later identified as Ohene.

Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard. Jr. told reporters that when police arrived, Ohene was on a median strip on Mass. Ave. Police had been warned by Ohene’s friends that he might have ingested hallucinogenic drugs. Police say they were trying to reason with him and used force when those efforts failed.

After being tackled and handcuffed, Ohene was taken to Mt. Auburn Hospital for a mental health evaluation.

Perhaps it will come as a surprise to some people that Cambridge would be the site of this kind of controversy. But it shouldn’t. After all, Cambridge is the same city where famed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for supposedly breaking into his own house in 2009 — an episode that prompted a far broader outcry that eventually stretched all the way to the Obama White House. Cambridge, like many other communities, is no stranger to racially charged police conflicts.

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Even as Mayor Marc McGovern and other city officials have expressed serious concerns about the arrest, Bard has defended his officers. The commissioner said Monday that people simply do not grasp how difficult it can be to subdue a naked man who isn’t responding to orders. Bard urged people not to rush to judgment. “If anyone ever had to constrain an individual against their will, they will know it is a very difficult thing to do,” Bard said.

Thanks for that, commissioner, but I don’t think that statement is going to do much to quell the controversy.

Cambridge police have said they are going to conduct an internal review of the incident. I think that’s a bad idea. This certainly should be investigated — but not by the Cambridge police. Far preferable would be a review by the Middlesex district attorney’s office. It demands an impartial investigation, which the Cambridge PD shouldn’t try to perform on itself.

Ohene’s attorneys — Harvard Law professors Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and Delia Umunna — say he is “recovering from injuries sustained during his encounter with the Cambridge Police Department.”

The question lurking just beneath the surface of this incident is as obvious as it is uncomfortable: Would this have played out the same way with an impaired but harmless white suspect? Obviously, the guy wasn’t armed. Yes, walking around naked is illegal, and I don’t doubt that Ohene alarmed people who encountered him. None of that is any reason to punch him.

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The use of excessive force on a black suspect is as old as American policing. But bystanders with cellphones captured this incident in real time. The commissioner says people shouldn’t be too quick to make judgments. But we now live in a world where everyone has already seen exactly what happened.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com.