Cambridge police formalizes its social justice approach to policing with new division

“The Family and Social Justice Section really represents the next step in the evolution of what Cambridge police have been working on for about 10 years now.”

The Robert W. Healy Public Safety Facility.
The Robert W. Healy Public Safety Facility. –Cambridge Police Department

The Cambridge Police Department established a new division in July, bringing its family justice, social justice, and clinical support units under one umbrella, with the goal of formalizing its approach to serving and protecting vulnerable populations.

“It’s a pretty wide scale approach in terms of our support services,” department spokesman Jeremy Warnick said of the recently established Family and Social Justice Section.

As part of the reorganization, the department brought in Dr. James Barrett to serve as the director of the Clinical Support Unit, which was created in July within the section. Previously the psychologist served as the director of school-based programs at the Cambridge Health Alliance, where he worked alongside the Safety Net Collaborative, the police department’s juvenile diversion program.

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“The Family and Social Justice Section really represents the next step in the evolution of what Cambridge police has been working on for about 10 years now,” Barrett said.

According to the department, there are about 30 people — both sworn officers and other staff members — working within the Family and Social Justice Section.

Barrett’s unit is comprised of two licensed social works and a director of outreach and community programs.  

“It’s a unit of non-sworn professionals who act as support for the officers who are on the youth and family services unit as well as the officers in our new social justice unit and community outreach unit,” he said.

Part of what Barrett and his colleagues do is reach out directly to people, particularly members of vulnerable populations, who come into contact with officers from the department.

“Juveniles, folks who struggle with homelessness, substance abuse, or chronic mental illness,” the psychologist said. “And our follow with them is usually to connect them to supports and services in the community and try to ensure that they’re safe and that they have the supports they need.”

The staff members also consult with officers on particular cases to help them understand how certain health conditions can affect a person’s behavior, provide the formal training within the department, and work with the department on its community prevention programs — going to after-school programs and community centers to provide intervention and prevention programing.

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“Because police are the first point of contact for juveniles or mentally ill or homeless folks struggling with mental illness, it’s about trying to use that point of contact to get the supports in place so that the person doesn’t go further down a path towards involvement in the justice system or cause social harm or present a greater risk to themselves,” Barrett said of the goals of the new section. “So really taking this clinical support unit and embedding it within the police department allows us to be able to respond when the police get that call in the follow up without having to rely on outside agencies to do that work.”

Having Barrett and his colleagues work hand-in-hand with the officers allows them the opportunity to act as “preventative agents,” he said, rather than just having cases handed off to them from the department once someone encounters the law enforcement agency.

Barrett said anyone is welcome to reach out to the section if they’re concerned about a young person or family member who might be on a troubling path — there’s no need to wait until he or she has “formal” contact with police.

“What has been really cool to see is that over the years our officers got integrated into the schools and the after schools, we actually did have parents coming in a preventative fashion,” he said. “And we were getting to work with younger and younger kids. Not in a way that they had actually committed an offense, but we were getting to see them at a younger age before they got to that critical adolescence where they may be getting into some riskier behavior, which allows us to really intercede at a time when hopefully we can be more effective.”   

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