Saturday, May 18, 2024

Amanda Rosanna, a responder with a local unarmed crisis team, speaks Saturday at a Harvard Square rally for Arif Sayed Faisal. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The death of Arif Sayed Faisal at the hands of Cambridge police has revived calls to establish an unarmed alternative to police that could respond to calls involving people in a mental health crisis. But it’s not likely that such an organization would respond on its own – without an accompanying police officer – to any situations involving violence, such as someone carrying a weapon as Faisal was, say police officials and other experts.

Even if a social worker or other mental clinician goes out with a police officer, the clinician will probably stay away from the scene until the situation stabilizes, said James Barrett, a psychologist who heads a Cambridge Police Department clinical support unit that includes social workers.“I’ve been out with officers. We have gone to active scenes as long as it’s not a crime scene, and as long as there’s no physical danger present,” he told a special City Council meeting Wednesday.

The state Department of Mental Health has a similar protocol, Barrett said. He went further: “There is not a co-responder model in this country that would send a social worker or an alternative response in with an armed person in crisis.”

Faisal, 20, jumped through a first-floor window of his family’s Cambridgeport apartment on Jan. 4 and began cutting himself with broken glass and a large knife, police say. A neighbor called 911 and police arrived but “never were able to get him to stop and to engage with us,” police commissioner Christine Elow said at the Wednesday meeting. After chasing Faisal through the neighborhood, officers caught up to him in a Chestnut Street backyard. When he refused to drop the knife, an officer shot him with a “less-than-lethal” foam-tipped projectile that had no effect, police said. He moved toward police, holding the knife, and another officer, a seven-year veteran, shot him with a gun, according to police. Faisal died later that day at a hospital.

Doubts about whether unarmed responders would have stepped in on a case such as Faisal’s contrast with many comments at protests after his death and at the council meeting. Representatives of the Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team, the alternative response program founded by citizens after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, suggested that Heart could have prevented Faisal’s death.

Trained civilians could have deescalated Faisal’s behavior “with words,” and Heart’s responders had the skills to do it, said Amanda Rosanna, a Heart responder, at a Saturday protest rally in Harvard Square. The city has not yet signed a contract with Heart, leaving the organization without enough money to respond to crises, though it has trained responders. The delay “has led to the killing of a young person from our community,” Rosanna said.

Delay in implementation

Members of the Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team at Cambridge City Hall last year. (Photo: Cambridge Heart)

City staff, officials and residents agreed Wednesday that Cambridge has taken too long to get both Heart and its new, $3 million Community Safety Department in place to work with people in crisis. That new agency has several unfilled positions, including its director, and was not expected to start operating before next month or March.

“It is deeply regretful that we have not been able to move more quickly,” City Manager Yi-An Huang told councillors. Meanwhile Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said there was “a real priority from most of this council to get funding for Heart figured out immediately.”

Huang also announced Wednesday that he’s moving the agency out of the emergency communications department because “it is a little bit difficult to think about some of that alternative response sitting ultimately within what is part of the public safety infrastructure.

He said Liz Speakman, coordinator for gender and domestic violence prevention, will take over from emergency communications director Christina Giacobbe. In an email to councillors, Huang said Speakman will “take over the implementation” of the department and also help negotiate a contract with Heart, as well as continuing her current duties. It was not clear whether this will further delay the operation of an alternative response to police.

Limited options

Yet the alternative response program cited by Heart and its supporters as a model that Cambridge should adopt, the Cahoots program in Eugene, Oregon, does not send mental health workers alone to calls involving someone with a weapon, councillor Marc McGovern said Wednesday, citing contact he’s had with the organization.

“What I was told was that if there’s a call where a weapon is involved, they do one of two things – they either send out police alone or they do a co-responder model where Cahoots is also there. It never sends out the mental health professionals alone when there’s a weapon,” McGovern said.

“I think when people are saying ’If we had this program up and running, or we called Heart, that they would have gone out and the police wouldn’t have been involved,’ I don’t know any city that would do it that way, or does it that way, including Eugene, Oregon,” McGovern said.

Two other alternative response programs chosen at random – Emcot in Austin, Texas, and Albuquerque Community Safety in New Mexico – have similar policies. A spokesperson for Integral Care, which runs the Emcot program, said its “mobile crisis team isn’t involved until the situation is stable.” The Albuquerque program may send licensed mental health clinicians – with police – to a “high-acuity call,” but the clinician can wait as far as a half-mile from the scene until a situation calms down, according to protocols on the program’s website.

View from criminology

Jack Greene, professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University and an expert on policing, said: “I’m sure the people who are trying to form these organizations have good intentions. The dilemma is that there’s only one organization or occupation on the civilian side that has the legal right to use force to gain compliance, and that’s the police.”

Greene said there’s nothing new about police and mental health workers responding together to incidents such as domestic violence, people barricading themselves or individuals having a psychotic break. “All of them require more than the law but not less than the law,” he said.

The Cambridge Police Department is “rather enlightened,” he said. “It’s probably more sensitive than other police departments in Massachusetts.” In the case of Faisal, he said, “it isn’t clear to me that beyond the use of this [less-than-lethal] projectile what else was done in that [deescalation] process.”

Deescalation training

That’s despite Cambridge police being trained in deescalation using a program developed specifically to deal with people in crisis from mental illness or addiction who don’t have firearms but may be armed with knives, bats or similar weapons. (The theory is that deescalation options are limited when a person has a gun.)

The program, called Icat for “Integrating Communication, Assessment and Tactics,” was developed by the Police Executive Research Forum, partly with the help of Scotland police, most of whom don’t carry guns.

After Faisal was killed, The Black Response – the organization started by black Cambridge residents to advocate for defunding the police – sent a message to supporters urging people not to call 911 in a crisis. It listed several alternatives, none of which appeared likely to have helped in Faisal’s situation as an alternative to 911. The organization hasn’t responded to a question about which of the alternatives would have applied to Faisal.