Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Police in Cambridgeport on Jan. 4 after the shooting of Sayed Faisal. (Photo: Brandon Constant)

City councillors have spent hours questioning the police commissioner, city manager and other officials about the police department policies since an officer shooting of Arif Sayed Faisal, only to be told Wednesday they have no authority to change anything. The news came during the council’s second special meeting on exactly that topic – during which there were additional surprises over a police review board failing to fulfill some duties – and it dismayed some councillors.

“What is the council’s role in oversight of any of this?” Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui asked police commissioner Christine Elow after hearing how the department examines “critical incidents” and is rewriting policies as part of an effort to win national accreditation.

“The council doesn’t have a role in setting our policies,” which are set by “state standards,” Elow answered.

City Manager An-Yi Huang tried to soften the blow, saying that even if the council can’t review police policies, his office and police wanted to show councillors “the level of professional complexity that actually goes into all of these policies and procedures, [because] it is important that we have legitimacy, and that there is some trust that these are being done correctly, which I hope that is being communicated today.”

It didn’t satisfy Siddiqui. “I’m confused,” she said. “We have these policies, procedures, protocols. A 20-year-old man is dead … How do we make sure they’re the right policies?”

Vice mayor Alanna Mallon suggested that the city could seek experts, perhaps at Harvard or other universities, to perform a “third-party review” of police policies and procedures. Referring to Faisal’s death, she said: “If we don’t want that to happen again, this is what would need to change … at the end of the day, the conversation that we’re having right now is because there’s a young man who’s not alive anymore.”

Huang said he is “open to this conversation” but it might be “premature” while Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan is still investigating Faisal’s death on Jan. 4. “And it is the case that there is a real struggle when you think about so many of these kinds of incidents where you have somebody who is in distress,” Huang said. “And there is a knife involved, where I think I don’t know that any department has completely figured this out.”

Behind the political and protest

Police responded to a 911 call from a neighbor that Faisal had jumped through a window and was cutting his wrists with broken glass and a large knife that he carried. He fled when they arrived and they chased him through his Cambridgeport 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 Massachusetts General Hospital.

Faisal and his family came to the United States from Bangladesh in 2015. He graduated from Somerville High School and studied computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Protests organized by the Bangladesh Association of New England have strengthened, with demonstrators taking over the regular City Council meeting Jan. 23 and forcing the council into a virtual meeting.The special meeting Wednesday was held online only.

Missed reports and more

The council’s lack of authority over police policies wasn’t the only frustrating discovery at the Wednesday meeting. Councillors also learned that for years, the Police Review and Advisory Board, which investigates some civilian complaints against police, hasn’t been filing required quarterly reports of its actions or reviewing police department proposed budgets with the council before their submission to the city manager. 

For the past two years, the police department submitted yearly reports of its inventory of weapons and other equipment to the city manager but the manager didn’t send the reports to the council; Huang, who took office in September, said he will do that now. And the police department’s long-promised “procedural justice dashboard,” showing statistics of police action that include the race of officers and suspects, is expected this summer but with reduced information for now. It was first proposed in 2019.

One less disappointing topic was police body cameras, which will be in the police department budget for the next fiscal year beginning July 1, Huang said. They have been discussed since 2014, councillor Patty Nolan said. There could be complications, such as writing rules about their use and negotiating with the police union, which has said it favors them but might want a salary increase for accepting them, Mallon said.

Little interest at police review board

As for the Police Review and Advisory Board, the only independent organization in city government that can investigate complaints of police misconduct, it also met Wednesday, for a half-hour. James Mulcahy, the police department’s director of professional standards, recounted the department’s account of Faisal’s shooting. It took about four minutes.

Two board members asked questions: One, Lucy Murray-Brown, wanted to know how long the planned inquest into Faisal’s death would take; the other, Beverly Sealey, asked whether any board members went to a meeting about the Faisal case Jan. 12 to which the community had been invited, and what it was like.

Mulcahy said he didn’t know how long it would take, but other inquest cases Ryan has handled were completed in a year to a year and a half. Answering Sealy’s question, acting chair Gina LaRoche said she had attended the meeting and “the auditorium was full, not every seat” but there was a balcony that she couldn’t see. LaRoche didn’t mention the frequent heckling and chants by protesters.(Jan. 13) Sealy said she hadn’t attended because “I was concerned about safety issues.”

According to executive director Brian Corr – who is also executive director of the Peace Commission and was moderator of the Jan. 12 meeting – the police review board has two vacancies and has proposed people to fill them, but the city manager has not submitted the names to the City Council.

PRAB powers and problems

The board, established in 1984 by state law, has limited power. It doesn’t have its own staff to investigate complaints, instead using police department staff. It can only recommend police discipline to the city manager. The board acts only if it disagrees with the finding of police investigators – and has been the subject of citizen complaints that it doesn’t investigate some complaints at all. In 2019, the Office of the Attorney General found the body guilty of violating Open Meeting Law, including in a case closed before talking with the complainant in which staff and members lied about whether the topic was on the agenda.

At the council special meeting Wednesday, Corr said he had not filed the required quarterly reports of the board’s actions, but added that minutes of the meetings and a docket of complaints were available. Minutes are posted on the board’s website, but there is no publicly available complaint docket.

And although councillors have no authority over police department policies, the board apparently does. It was established to “provide for citizen participation in reviewing police department policies, practices and procedures,” the website says.

This post was corrected Jan. 26, 2023, to say that police have been submitted yearly inventory reports of weapons and other equipment to the city manager, but the manager didn’t send the reports to the City Council.