Saturday, May 18, 2024

Residents in Cambridgeport pass by police Jan. 4, after the shooting of Arif Sayed Faisal. (Photo: Brandon Constant)

The name of the police officer who shot Arif Sayed Faisal, 20, in Cambridgeport won’t be released until the end of a long-term investigation by the district attorney, because he is not likely to face charges, Cambridge’s police commissioner said Wednesday.

Members of the community have been insisting that the name be released since the Jan. 4 shooting, when police found Faisal harming himself with shards of glass and a long knife. Several repeated the demand at Wednesday’s special meeting of the City Council, called to discuss police protocols, processes and training as they related to Faisal’s shooting.

In incidents of fatal violence to black and brown people nationwide, officers’ names have been released “when there is pretty much egregious rules violations or even potential criminal charges” pending, commissioner Christine Elow said. “We do not have criminal charges pending, there is no discipline pending and we do not see any glaring policy violation.”

With emotions running high over what community members are calling Faisal’s “murder” by “killer cops,” the city is being cautious over releasing the officer’s name. Revealing it could lead to “potential harassment to the officer involved,” City Manager Yi-An Huang said.

Cambridge police commissioner Christine Elow, second from left, speaks Wednesday in an image from the livestream of a special City Council meeting.

Though city officials told residents at a raucous Thursday meeting that not naming the officer was a matter of city policy, on Wednesday they had a clarification: It is more of a practice than a policy. “It’s not a policy that is in writing,” Elow said.

The officer, described as a seven-year veteran of the Cambridge Police Department, remains on paid administrative leave per department policy during investigation of Faisal’s death, department spokesperson Jeremy Warnick said Wednesday. In the process outlined by Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan, it will likely take seven to eight months just for forensic and ballistic tests to come back, followed by a judge holding an inquest to determine whether “there is probable cause for a charge of criminal negligence against the officer” who shot Faisal.

Few shootings

Cambridge has had little reason to become familiar with shooting investigations. Its police have discharged their weapons in the direction of a human only five times since 1934, according to city councillor Quinton Zondervan and Elow: nonfatal shootings in 1934 and 1937; Daniel Furtado, shot and killed in 2002 when he allegedly ran at police with a hatchet while emotionally disturbed; a March 2015 incident in which police and a burglar exchanged one shot each, hitting nothing, but the man was later found dead of suicide; and Faisal on Jan. 4.

Police put that in even deeper context, saying there had been more than 2 million calls for service since 2004, including just over 124,000 calls in 2022 – “more than any other year,” Elow said. Force was used in 66 of those calls last year, or 0.053 percent, with most of those “officers using their hands to gain control of a situation.” The year also saw more mental health reports than in any other year going back to 2015, when police started keeping track. “It nearly doubled,” Elow said.

Meanwhile, CPD has been “at the forefront” of training in deescalation and “fair, impartial” policing since 2012, instituting continual reviews to ensure it “exceeds standards and best practices well before other agencies across the country, many who don’t even have an active use-of-force policy,” Elow said. Some of those training practices were described in-depth at last week’s meeting and Wednesday for the council.

Unrest over police

The image was at odds with stories told by several of the public speakers who led off the meeting, including anecdotes in which police responded to mental health problems with a lack of sensitivity that inflamed rather than deescalated. Alex Kalshnek said that in his work as a security guard for an Alewife-area office building, he has been explicitly ordered by three managers not to call in police for anything short of “a literal shooting” due to their poor treatment of the unhoused and mentally ill.

“This is why so many people are are not asking for oversight. They’re not asking for more of an explanation. They’re asking for demilitarization and defunding, because nobody trusts many police departments,” Kalshnek said. “I know for a fact that so many people in Cambridge do not trust the Cambridge Police Department.”

Jacqueline Kung, a Central Square resident, had a milder take – that despite all the police training, “still this happened,” making police simply “the wrong tool for this situation … I think we’ll look back to this time and say, why did we ask the police to respond to mental health calls? They aren’t trained to know the difference between somebody with a knife whose main purpose is to kill people versus someone who’s having a mental health crisis, who’s cutting himself and is not a danger to me or the rest of the community.”

Of more than 35 speakers, only one expressed strong support for police actions concerning Faisal; councillor E. Denise Simmons said there were many more in the community with that point of view, but they stayed away Wednesday because “they were fearful of coming because they may not hold the same opinion” as other speakers – many of whom identified themselves as members of organized groups.

Unlike at Thursday’s meeting in Cambridgeport, the council meeting faced no protests or disruptions.

Explaining the use of force

Shooting Faisal was necessary, said Elow and Cameron Dean, an officer described by her as a nationally recognized expert in deescalation. 

Police “attempted to verbally engage Faisal, with the goal of trying to get him to talk to us and drop the knife, for over five blocks,” Elow said. “When Faisal ran away with a knife, he was refusing all attempts to talk or to stop. And at this point, he was no longer only a threat to himself … there were several people in the area, along with a day care nearby.”

There were a dozen officers or more at the scene overall, Elow said. When the officers were finally able to contain Faisal in a yard “and continue to try to verbally engage him,” there were four or five officers present, with one firing a nonlethal weapon at him. “That also did not have an impact. This is when one officer used lethal force.” The number of shots fired was not given.

Aiming for the torso instead of a leg or arm means a bigger target and less chance of a bullet missing and hitting someone else, Dean said. And counterintuitively, a chest shot provides a better chance of an injured person living than firing at a leg, where even a nick to a femoral artery can cause someone to bleed out quickly.

Unarmed response

There is also justification for bringing a gun to a knife fight, they said. Elow listed several knife attacks on police, including a December incident in Long Island, New York, in which “one of the officers was stabbed in the chest through his bulletproof vest.” Dean said that as a Medford officer in 2002, he was stabbed seven times in the back with a box cutter in what he at first thought were punches. “I tried to give the benefit of the doubt to this particular individual, and I almost lost my life because of it,” Dean said. “It is something that will sit with me forever.”

Along with questions about police use of deadly force against Faisal were those of why there wasn’t an unarmed response in place to try to help. Though police said there was no model of unarmed response in which an officer would have allowed a social worker to approach Faisal, councillors, city staff and residents agreed that Cambridge has taken too long to get both its new, $3 million Community Safety Department and the citizen-run Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team in place to work with people in crisis. Vice mayor Alanna Mallon called for regular updates until the organizations were active.

“It is deeply regretful that we have not been able to move more quickly,” Huang told councillors.

After slightly over three hours, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui recessed the meeting to reconvene at a date to be set for as soon as next week. Because the meeting is reconvening, the next session will not have to include public comment.