Riding with Chief Dan: Cambridge, one year later

MD-Riding with Chief Dan_Front

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
Cambridge Police Chief Daniel Dvorak is a friend of Cambridge. “Whenever anybody asks me how I like it here — people from my old home, from my family — I say man, I absolutely love it.”

CAMBRIDGE — A black car with heavily tinted windows rolls up to the street corner. As it stops I hear the electric door locks click open. Time for the “flight or fight” impulse to go into action?

No. I open the passenger door and a grinning face asks, “Are you ready?” It’s Chief Dan of the Cambridge P.D., and we’re getting together to do an interview, looking back at roughly a year in office for the chief so far. Rather than sit in a quiet room, we decided to drive around town in a patrol car and talk about things as we see them.

Daniel Dvorak was sworn in as chief last January, coming here from Newport, R.I. Newport and Cambridge are both water towns, but that’s where the similarity ends. Newport is a place that defines the term “affluent,” and there is a huge difference in racial mix between the two. Many of us on the outside joked that “Chief Dan,” as he likes being called, was in for a rude shock once he learned more about Cambridge. The shock was more on us, as the chief spent time getting to know Cambridge long before he was sworn in, and even before the first job interview. He knew what he was getting into, and still has no regrets.
“Whenever anybody asks me how I like it here — people from my old home, from my family — I say man, I absolutely love it,” the chief tells me. “The first time I saw the city, I thought, ‘this is an amazing city, I could never get a job here, they won’t hire me.’ So I went into the interview with nothing to lose.”

Officer Dvorak actually had a job offer in New Hampshire at the time, but was holding out for the slim possibility of getting in here in Cambridge. He wasn’t disappointed, and it doesn’t appear that he ever will be. He talks about studying the city, both from his squad car and in the library.

“I’ve learned a lot from reading about Cambridge’s history. That has definitely changed my attitude,” he tells me. “In Newport, we didn’t have a big African American population, I think it’s maybe 15 to 20 percent. So the dynamic here is a little bit different. More than that, I find that the issue of the Cambridge civil rights demonstrations in 1963 and 1967 is still so very active in people’s minds, and that’s a much different perception from what I experienced in the northeast.
“Cambridge is an interesting city, and the challenge is addressing everybody’s different needs. Business owners on Cambridge Main Street, they want something in particular. Then I go to the NAACP banquet, and I find they need something in particular. Everybody has a goal in mind, everybody is looking for something. So trying to meet all the varying needs is challenging.”

In the past year, he’s increased his depth of understanding the people and neighborhoods in Cambridge. “I think I’ve spent the last year getting an understanding of where everybody is coming from,” he says, “and what their expectations are, for life. We have some residents who aren’t worrying about where their next meal is coming from, and they’re living a block away from people who are. We are a very closely intermingled city. When I first started looking for a house in Cambridge, I’d ask my officers how’s this street, how’s that street, and they’d say, ‘what block are you talking about?’”

We’re driving down a street in Ward 2, and talk about the recent county substandard housing report. We cruise down an avenue with a mix of nicely kept homes and dilapidated rentals. “Some of these places are very nice inside, the people who live there do their best to keep the place clean,” the chief says, scanning the front yards. “Some of them, though, there’s no making them nice, because the landlord is not making the repairs that they need to. I’m working with Cesar Gonzales and the Dorchester County Faith Alliance. If we go into a place where, say, there’s a big hole the floor or no heat, I’m going to let him know so he can try to intervene. The trouble is, if a tenant complains about having no heat or a hole in the floor, they can get evicted. The landlord will just get rid of them, so that keeps them from complaining about living conditions. I heard stories passed down over the years, though I haven’t experienced it personally. We’re all on the lookout, though.”
We talk about what it means to be poor in Cambridge, and about the income inequality of the various neighborhoods.

“My son’s school had a ‘poverty simulation,’ where everybody who attended learned what it was like to be poor. I saw something a while ago … ‘I get myself up in the morning because I can’t afford an alarm clock. I pull clothes out of the hamper because there’s no way to clean them. I get to school and I get into trouble because my teacher says, “where’s your pencil?”’

“So this is the way people live. The stories I hear from teachers, from social workers … these kids get fed breakfast when they go to school. They get fed lunch in school, and then on the weekends they’re sent home with food because churches have adopted certain schools. There are, literally, too many people in this city who are scratching for a meal. They don’t know where their next meal will come from.

“So here I am saying, ‘Don’t do drugs! Don’t commit a crime, because then you can get a job!’ but some of these folks are just trying to feed themselves. We are so far apart in our needs.”

We pass through the projects on the edge of Ward 2, and talk about the concept of racial divide. As an outsider, I ask, what do you think of racial tension in Cambridge? Do you think there are a lot of racial problems in Cambridge, or is it more perception than reality?

“There are many visual reminders of the racial unrest of the ‘60s in Cambridge, there are also reminders still of the time of slavery. It’s difficult to get beyond that,” the chief says. “They (city officials) told me that they thought it was important to bring me in from the outside, because I didn’t have any of those visual cues. It’s a little easier for me to be objective about things. I have to be real careful to be sensitive, and I always have to ask why — even if I think something is wrong, I ask why — what brought us to this place? I’ve been reading all the books, watching Mr. Watson’s videos of the history of Pine Street and High Street, the history of the area. I have to understand those things so I can understand the culture. I can’t change those perceptions. But how bad is it? I don’t think it’s as bad here as some people perceive it to be.

“When I first came here I had a few people come to me, and tell me, ‘This is the most racist town you’ll ever be in.’ But I don’t believe that broad statement, and I’ve tried to figure it out on my own, through my observations and talking to people.
“On the national day of prayer, the ministerial association of the Dorchester County Faith Alliance asked me to give a prayer. And when I walked in there, all the black ministers were sitting at one table, and all the white ministers were sitting at another. I was the only racially neutral table, because I had a few black officers with me and a few white officers. But I asked my officers about that, and they told me there’s nothing racist about it, because you gravitate towards people you know. And it’s true. I walked into a meeting last night, and Les Hutton, the former chief of police of Hurlock, was there. I bypassed all the business owners to go and talk to Les. I gravitated to somebody who was like me.

“We happen to live in a society that was segregated. We had black police officers (during the segregation years) who weren’t allowed to walk in white neighborhoods, and weren’t allowed to walk into white homes. In fact, the only police officer to ever be killed in Cambridge was a white officer. He walked into a domestic situation and was shot. His partner was black, he stayed in the patrol car because he wasn’t allowed in the house.

“So in a community where we have a black American Legion and a white American Legion, and have had for 75 years and still have them today, you’re not going to close one and force everybody to move into another. We had black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, and they’re still there. You don’t have to live in any one specific neighborhood anymore, but you do. People are always going to go where they’re comfortable.

“We will never get rid of that divide, but I’m hoping that the reasoning behind it, the fact that it was just race-based, will erode over time.”

We drive past the back side of Poplar Street, scene of a recent robbery, and I ask about the image of Cambridge as a dangerous place.

“Here in Cambridge, we have more of a perception of crime than a reality. All it takes is one 14 year old kid to rob three people on Race Street. That startled everybody — and we caught him — but they’re still talking about it up in St. Michaels. Well, people get robbed in Easton, too. So dealing with people’s different perceptions and trying to deploy a limited force is challenging.

“My big problem right now is people not reporting crime to me. We had an incident recently, a man working saw a guy sneak onto his property and steal a power tool. The guy startled him, got the tool back, got the guy’s name, and let the guy go and never reported it to us. So we followed up on it, and this guy happens to be a career criminal, a guy who is violating everybody’s right to personal property, and they didn’t tell us about him. We need to know about this stuff so we can get these people into the system.

“The problem is, you catch them, put them in jail, and the jails are over-full, and when he gets out, what is he going to do? He’s going to steal again. We know this one particular guy is a heroin addict, and I’ll do everything I can to try to get him treatment, and get him some help. If I can get him off heroin, maybe he’ll stop stealing power tools. These guys will do anything for heroin. They’ll do anything for a fix.”

On one of the school routes, we pass a vacant lot scattered with trash; a scene that obviously irritates Chief Dvorak.
“Look at this trash. This is another thing that bothers me, and I’ve been talking to a few neighborhood groups about it. We might be able to get into a program where we can take back one block at a time, and just spread throughout the city with neighborhood watch groups, cleaning things up.”

MD-Riding with Chief Dan_Inside
He stresses the fact that, in his vision, “neighborhood watch” doesn’t necessarily mean extra policing; it also means looking for ways to involve the community in taking pride in their neighborhood and helping clean things up. “I think it’s hard to have self-esteem and feel good about yourself as a child if you have to walk by this trash everyday on the way home from school. What could be a nice, little green play area is gross, with broken bottles and garbage.”

So physically cleaning up the town, as well as fighting crime serves as a base need of the city, we ask?

“If we’re going to look at the base needs of the city, we need to start with housing — there’s a shortage of affordable housing in Cambridge. We have to look at all the litter and trash around, and we’ve got a lack of jobs, whether it’s because people aren’t qualified for them or just that there aren’t any jobs.

“But go into the social services building, and there’s a lot of jobs on the job wall, it’s just that they’re not here. Now we have a county transportation system, but it’s a nightmare trying to juggle everything.”

The chief says that everyone’s story is different, but the basic refrain is, “I would like to have a job, but I can’t go up to Chestertown to work because I have to drop my child off at day care. By the time I come back to Cambridge, the day care is charging me a fine for not picking up my child at 5 p.m. And, by the time I’m done paying for child care, and transportation, I have $20 left in my pocket.”

It’s obvious that the chief believes everything grows from the bottom up. Less trash and better housing means a more attractive town, an attractive setting brings in business, businesses bring jobs, more jobs means less people struggling, and everything gets better.

“I see Cambridge as a jewel, it just needs some polishing,” he says. “We need a boost up by tourism. We need to get the shops on Race, Poplar, and High streets, we need to get them filled. We need some good things for kids to do — we need a skateboard park, we need somebody to come in and buy that old K-Mart and put in a laser tag and an arcade.”

These things don’t always get done by government, the Chief suggests. “I talked to one of the folks who have an application in for the medical marijuana processing plant that they want to locate here. They asked me what they could put in their application to show that they care about the city, and I said we need a skateboard park. I mentioned this to the mayor, and she thought it was a great idea. I have a plan of a park that I like, that would cost $140,000. It could happen that way.”
As a father himself, he’s sensitive about the importance of keeping kids occupied.

“We need things for kids to do,” he repeats. “Parents need to know where their kids are. There’s too many young kids out all night long, breaking into cars and businesses. If parents knew; if we could get back a little more control, a little more responsibility, I think it would help a great deal.”

We’ve driven through all the wards, stopped to talk to folks, and walked a few streets. We’ve both got to get back to work, and I ask about his long term goals in Cambridge.

“I would really like to put in 16 years here, on the force,” he says. “I want a safer city. I want a vibrant economy. I want sporting events and things for kids to do. I would love to have nobody going to bed hungry.”

As he often does, he returns to the subject of the youngsters in the town. “I think it’s important to teach kids respect,” he says in parting, “to respect themselves, their own bodies and the bodies of others, the property of others. With disrespect is how we get the theft and the vandalisms that aggravate people. So if we can get people to respect one another, respect themselves, build up their self-esteem, we can reduce crime.”

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