Cambridge Police Department Establishes Family and Social Justice Section

Earlier this year, Cambridge Police Department (CPD) established a Family and Social Justice Section to help formalize its new social justice approach to policing and increase its capacity to serve and protect our most vulnerable populations: juveniles, homeless, individuals suffering from mental illness and substance abuse, Seniors in need of dependent care, and survivors of domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

The new section will bring together professional staff and specialists to provide specific services to members of the community who would be better served through a social justice approach, rather than what could be afforded to them through a conventional criminal justice approach. The section is comprised of the Family Justice Unit, Social Justice Unit, and Clinical Support Unit.

Dr. James Barrett

CPD recently hired Dr. James Barrett as Director of the new Clinical Support Unit. Dr. Barrett has an extensive background in psychology, having previously served in roles at the Cambridge Health Alliance and is an Assistant Professor in Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry (part-time) at Harvard Medical School.

The Unit also includes two licensed social workers, and a director of community outreach and provides training, consultation, and program development and evaluation support to the sworn officers of the CPD.

Recently, we were able to speak with Dr. Barrett to learn more about the exciting new developments in the Police Department.

What does your role within the Cambridge Police Department involve on a day to day basis?

One of the best parts of working for the Cambridge Police is that there is so much variety to what I do on a day-to-day basis. Some days I am out with officers or out with clinical support staff providing outreach to youth and families at home or in the schools and youth centers. Other days I consult to officers by providing risk assessments or assisting in the case management process by helping to follow-up with service providers to link our vulnerable populations with appropriate services. I also provide training to officers and supervise clinical interns in social work and psychology who work with the CPD. Another area of responsibility for me is to coordinate and conduct research on the outcomes associated with CPD’s efforts to better serve vulnerable populations.

What are your initial plans, what are the primary things you want to focus on?

I have worked with the Cambridge Police for the past 10 years in the Safety Net Collaborative when I was the Director of School-Based Programs at the Cambridge Health Alliance. My role has now flipped in that I am full time with the police while also keeping my affiliation with CHA and Harvard Medical School. My initial goals in this new role are to better formalize and evaluate the work that we have been doing over the past 10 years. We are currently collaborating with the Health Equity Research Lab at CHA to evaluate both Safety Net and the efforts of the Family and Social Justice Section. Our plan is to use the results to formalize and manualize or work with vulnerable populations so we can both improve our response to the citizens of Cambridge and also share best practices in this area with other police departments locally and nationally.

How do you plan on working with police officers to help adjust their mindset and abilities when dealing with cases that involve things such as mental health and youth development?

The Cambridge Police has been committed to better serving vulnerable populations for several years, first under Commissioner Haas and now under Commissioner Bard who has taken these efforts to the next level by standing up the Family and Social Justice Section. Because of this commitment, our officers are already well-trained and well-versed in understanding issues such as mental health and youth development. One of the major advantages of embedding the Clinical Support Unit in the police department itself is that the clinical support staff can further this understanding by working alongside officers on specific cases and hopefully strengthen the connection between what they have learned in training with what they are responding to day-to-day with their cases.

Could you explain the Safety Net Collaborative a bit more in depth?

The Safety Net Collaborative is comprised of members the Cambridge Police, Cambridge Public Schools, Cambridge Health Alliance and Department of Human Services. The mission of Safety Net is to foster positive youth development, promote mental health, support safe school and community environments, and limit youth involvement in the juvenile justice system through coordinated prevention, intervention, and diversion services for Cambridge youth and families. We meet as a group twice a month to discuss the cases we are working with and identify new families in Cambridge who may be in need of support. The Youth Resource Officers within CPD are able to work with the partners in Safety Net to act as preventative agents and can offer Cambridge families community-based diversion for certain offenses. We have seen a statistically significant drop in juvenile arrests and summons in the city of Cambridge over the last few years. We also have analyzed service utilization data and youth served through Safety Net are more likely to access mental health and support services than youth who are processed through the courts.

How has your previous experience in more medically based areas compared to your new job with the Cambridge Police Department?

My work as a clinician was more structured in terms of having set appointments in a clinic throughout the day. With the police, my role is much more responsive; one day could be relatively quiet while the next could involve multiple crises. The police are often the first point of contact for adults and juveniles with some form of mental health crisis so I am learning how to best try to leverage that contact so the person gets the help they need rather than further involvement in the justice system.

Could you explain how a “social justice approach” works?

A social justice approach to policing recognizes the importance of addressing the underlying factors that lead people to be in contact with police in the first place. The emphasis is put on linkage to supports and services, while holding individuals accountable and promoting public safety, rather than a traditional “crime and punishment” model. A social justice approach is particularly important when it comes to policing vulnerable populations: people with mental illness, homeless, people with substance abuse disorders and juveniles. The formation of the Family and Social Justice Section and the Clinical Support Unit demonstrate the importance of this approach to the Cambridge Police as it is very rare to have a unit of clinical professionals fully integrated into a police department.

To learn more about the work of these units, visit

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Published by

Jamie Martin

Public Information Office co-op.