Video Shows Police Tackling and Punching Black Harvard Student
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The Cambridge police have launched an internal investigation into an incident on Friday night in which officers tackled and punched a black Harvard student they were trying to arrest as he stood naked in the median of a busy street.
The police, who released a video of the scene on Sunday amid complaints about the officers’ conduct, said that the student, Selorm Ohene, 21, was apparently high on drugs and acting in an aggressive and unruly manner when they approached him and tried to calm him down. He came at them, the police said, with clenched fists.
The video of the incident shows a few police officers standing in a circle around Mr. Ohene for several moments. As he stepped toward one officer, a second officer dove at his legs from behind, the video shows, and Mr. Ohene and the officers fell to the ground. Mr. Ohene could be heard crying out at that point. At least one officer then could be seen punching Mr. Ohene, and the police have acknowledged that an officer punched him five times in the stomach.
The Harvard Black Law Students Association, some of whose members witnessed the scene, disputed the police account and said the officers acted without provocation.
“We demand that the officers who assaulted this man while he was naked, fully subdued and bleeding on the ground be investigated and held accountable,” the group said in a statement.
Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, said Monday that while she did not yet know all the facts, the incident was “profoundly disturbing,” especially as it occurred against “the backdrop of increasingly urgent questions about race and policing in the United States.”
The mayor of Cambridge, Marc C. McGovern, called the video “disturbing” and said he wanted to ensure “that the horrific treatment of black Americans at the hands of law enforcement has no place in Cambridge.”
Branville G. Bard Jr., the Cambridge police commissioner, said at a news conference that he supported the arresting officers and had not placed them on administrative leave. As in any case involving the use of force, he said, the police have begun an internal investigation. Mr. Bard said the report would be made public as soon as it was completed.
Mr. Ohene is still in a hospital, where he was taken Friday night, and he remains under police watch. He has been charged with indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, assault, resisting arrest, and assault and battery on ambulance personnel. He is still undergoing mental health examinations and has yet to be arraigned.
Mr. Ohene is studying mathematics, according to a statement from his lawyers, Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. and Dehlia Umunna, both of whom are professors at Harvard. They said he is still recovering from his injuries, but offered few other details about the arrest on Friday.
The lawyers said it had been a trying ordeal for their client and his family, and they asked the public and the media to respect his privacy. “As the public is aware, several students captured the incident on their cell phones,” the statement said. “The video speaks for itself.”
Jeremy Warnick, a Cambridge police spokesman, said that the police “are still trying to contact witnesses, and we haven’t spoken with the individual who was arrested.” Mr. Warnick said that the internal investigation would focus on the tackling of Mr. Ohene from behind and the punches that were thrown.
Mr. Ohene was standing naked in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue around 9 p.m. Friday. The police said Mr. Ohene’s friends reported that he had taken a hallucinogenic drug, although that could not be independently verified.
Cars slowed down and about 30 people gathered to watch the scene. Many called the police. As the confrontation with police officers occurred, people continued watching, some taking videos with their phones.
The police report suggested that Mr. Ohene was aggressive. “Ohene’s goal was to seriously hurt himself or one of the officers on scene,” the report said. “Ohene absolutely could not be reasoned with.”
The report went on: “Unable to pry Ohene’s hands from underneath his body, I delivered approximately five strikes with a closed fists to the area of his stomach.” Police shackled his ankles before putting him in an ambulance.
“A pool of blood remained on the pavement as the ambulance departed,” according to the Black Law Students Association.
In its statement, the student group called on Harvard to form a crisis team to deal with emergencies without involving the police and demanded an investigation into the officers’ conduct. It also said the officers had tried to obstruct witnesses’ attempts to record the encounter, but it did not specify how.
Mr. McGovern, the mayor, said policing in this progressive city was “far ahead of many communities in the country.” But Cambridge police have been criticized for their treatment of black residents in the past, most notably in 2009, when the police arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., a black professor at Harvard, who was seen struggling to open his jammed front door.
The episode touched off an extensive national debate over police treatment of blacks, which intensified when President Barack Obama said the police had “acted stupidly.” A report commissioned by the city later called the incident “avoidable,” though it said both the officer and Mr. Gates escalated the encounter.