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Black Student's Arrest Near Harvard Sparks Outcry

Video of incident involving Selorm Ohene shows him being punched multiple times
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 17, 2018 1:48 PM CDT

(Newser) – Cambridge police are under fire after video surfaced showing officers tackling an unarmed black Harvard student, then punching him multiple times as he was pinned to the ground. Selorm Ohene, a 21-year-old math student, was standing naked on a median in the middle of Massachusetts Ave. around 9pm Friday night; police say his friends reported he may have taken a hallucinogenic drug. Video of the incident (see an AP clip) shows officers surrounding Ohene, then one officer tackling him as he moves toward the officers. Once on the ground, Ohene can be heard crying out "Help me, Jesus"; police have acknowledged he was punched by an officer five times. They say the use of force was justified, but an internal investigation has been launched after the resulting outcry, the New York Times reports. The latest:

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  • Police version of events: "Numerous attempts made by officers to calm the male down were met with opposition and his hostility escalated," the police department says in a statement. Police say Ohene acted erratically and could not be reasoned with, intended to hurt himself or an officer, clenched his fists in an aggressive manner, and moved toward the officers; they say he then "resisted arrest" once on the ground, "contort[ing] his body" in such a way that he could not be handcuffed and refusing to give officers his hands. Since all this was happening "next to a busy street with oncoming traffic," force was required, they say.
  • Disagreement: In an open letter, the Harvard Black Law Students Association, which says a number of its members witnessed the incident, disputes that version of events. They say Ohene stood still as he was surrounded by at least four officers who, "without provocation, lunged at him, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. While on the ground, at least one officer repeatedly punched the student in his torso as he screamed for help. ... A pool of blood remained on the pavement as the ambulance departed." The letter has been signed by dozens of other student organizations.
  • "Force continuum": At a press conference Monday, Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr., who has said he supports the officers' actions, explained the "continuum" officers are trained to work from, the Washington Post reports. Ohene "was flailing, kicking, and the officers were doing everything within their power as they go up that force continuum to bring him into custody and compliance and control safely," he said.
  • Charges: Ohene faces charges of disorderly conduct, indecent exposure, resisting arrest, and assault, plus assault and battery on an ambulance personnel because, police say, he spat blood and saliva at an EMT. But police said Monday they may reconsider the charges, WBUR reports. Ohene, who was recently transferred from a hospital to an in-patient facility, per NECN, is being evaluated; if his actions are found to be related to mental health issues, the charges could be dropped.

  • Protocol questions: The HBLSA says in its letter that Harvard University Health Services was the first to be contacted about Ohene, but that HUHS transferred callers to the Cambridge Police Department instead of sending staff to help Ohene. But officials say proper protocol was followed, the Harvard Crimson reports: HUHS contacted the Harvard University Police Department, but that department did not have jurisdiction since Ohene was off-campus (reportedly by mere "feet") at the time, so HUPD contacted CPD.
  • Harvard response: Two Harvard Law School professors are representing Ohene, the Boston Globe reports; they released a statement Tuesday saying he is "currently recovering from injuries sustained during his encounter" with police. The Crimson reports that the university's Office of General Counsel and administration will look into the incident. Harvard's president, Drew Faust, said in an email to members of the Harvard community the incident was "profoundly disturbing," reports the Boston Globe, which has the email in full; in it, Faust notes that a full review of the incident is still underway.
  • Mayor agrees: Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern also released a statement calling the incident "disturbing" and adding, "Cambridge affirms that Black Lives Matter, but it must be true in practice as well." The mayor's office says it is arranging meetings with the university, the police department, and others involved.
  • One opinion: In an editorial, the Boston Globe calls the incident "alarming," noting that the video seems to tell a different story than the police version of events. "It is unclear why there was need for such an extreme response. One of the first questions to explore: Would police actions have been the same if the offender had been white?"
(Read more Harvard stories.)

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