Four stories of survived mental health crises shared by police in release, raising questions (updated)
In an unusual statement Wednesday, Cambridge police said officers had successfully handled four incidents in the previous week involving severely disturbed people – three of them armed. “Each situation was resolved peacefully without any injuries to anyone involved and the residents were transported to local hospitals for evaluation and treatment,” the statement said.
The only reason given for the statement was the first sentence: “We wanted to make the community aware of four notable public safety responses that have occurred since Friday.” Later, answering a question, police department spokesperson Jeremy Warnick said the cases described in the statement “demonstrate how complex mental health situations can be and provide a sense of the day-to-day approaches the Cambridge police and Cambridge public safety agencies take with them.” He added that mentioning the outside help that police called upon, such as a new mental health hotline and clinic, might be useful to the public.
The report appeared to counter scathing criticism of the Jan. 4 fatal police shooting of Sayed Faisal, 20, who was in a mental crisis and carrying a large knife, and to contradict assertions that armed police are the wrong responders in mental health cases. But it also raised the question of why officers hadn’t been able to achieve the same result with Faisal that they did in the four other cases, which the statement described in detail.
Warnick said: “The tragedy on Jan. 4 was unfortunately different in that it evolved so quickly across several blocks of a neighborhood, outside and, despite great efforts, officers weren’t able to obtain compliance or containment in a controllable space while the young man was armed with the kukri knife.”
The situations described in the statement involved one man with a knife, another with a hammer and a third who had previously threatened college students with a baseball bat but wasn’t said to have a weapon when police encountered him a final time in an unnamed local hospital. The fourth person was holding a lighter next to a smoldering bush, police said; it was not clear whether officers considered the lighter a weapon.
The statement didn’t provide the race or ethnicity of the four men; Warnick said two were white, one Asian/Pacific Islander, and one black. Some demonstrators protesting Faisal’s death have said that as a Bangladeshi, he was a victim of police racism.
Faisal was seen jumping through a first-floor window in the Cambridgeport apartment where he lived with his parents and cutting his wrists with broken glass and a large knife later identified as a kukri. When police arrived, he fled, running through the neighborhood near Putnam Avenue and Sidney Street while he continued to cut himself, police said. He refused to drop the knife when officers caught up to him in a backyard on Chestnut Street and a shot from a foam-tipped “less-than-lethal” projectile had no effect, according to police. When he moved toward officers, still holding the knife, one officer shot him, police said. He died at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Like Faisal, two of the men brought under control peacefully by police were armed with obviously dangerous weapons. Both threatened to kill their parents; one also threatened police with a hammer, according to police
Unlike Faisal, all the men in the four cases described in the Wednesday statement did not run away from officers. Two locked or barricaded themselves in rooms in the homes where their families lived. One, the man with the lighter next to a smoldering bush, did not flee. The fourth was in a local hospital where he had been committed the previous week.
Holding a knife or hammer
Also unlike the Faisal shooting, police called upon their own crisis negotiation team, trained in deescalation and negotiation with people in a mental health crisis who are barricaded, in the case of the man with a knife threatening to kill his parents. The city’s 911 center also called the new Cambridge Health Alliance community behavioral health center for help. The center, which offers mobile crisis intervention, sent a clinician who persuaded the man to go to the hospital for evaluation and treatment after police negotiators got him to leave the room where he was barricaded, police said.
Still, in line with policies of most non-police first responders, the clinician didn’t get involved until “the situation was determined to be safe,” police said. A CHA spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a question about protocols of its new center regarding safety.
Police have said they didn’t have time to summon a crisis intervention team in Faisal’s case and that their clinical support unit, which includes social workers, does not act as a first responder and does not intervene in cases where there is violence. Warnick said that in the successfully resolved Jan. 31 case of the man with a knife, there was “more time and controllable space” so officers were able to call in the Community Behavioral Health Center and a clinician who responded to the situation “once it was managed and determined to be safe.”
As for the man who threatened his parent and police while holding a hammer, the man dropped his hammer after officers showed him the “less-than-lethal” launcher and gave him “verbal commands,” the police statement said. He was taken to a “local hospital” for evaluation and treatment against his will, the statement said. Police later found a “long knife, an airsoft gun and tactical gear” inside the room where he had locked himself, they said.
Threatening with a baseball bat
The third case described in the statement involved a man who had been committed to a “local hospital” for treatment on Jan. 23 after threatening students at an unnamed college with a baseball bat, punching one student after intimidating them because of their sexual orientation, and using racial slurs. At the hospital, he assaulted at least five employees, the statement said.
Working with the district attorney’s office, the college police, “local service providers,” the hospital and a “local judge,” police took the man from the hospital to a district court, where the judge ordered him sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for longer treatment, the police statement said.
Warnick said the hospital had called police for help.
Standing with a lighter
The man found standing next to the smoldering bush with a lighter in his hand, in the 1000 block of Massachusetts Ave., was charged with four counts of violating a law prohibiting burning stacks of wood, trees, fences, hay and other materials that belong to someone else and are worth more than $25. The statement called the offense “burn personalty”; it carries a sentence of up to three years.
The statement said police found piles of trash nearby that had been burned, with one over an electrical outlet, and that the man was suspected of burning trash a few days earlier in a church dumpster off Mount Auburn Street. The man was arrested, but the statement didn’t say that he was taken to a place that could provide evaluation or mental health treatment. Warnick said he was taken to district court.
Warnick said Cambridge police are involved in an increasing number of forced and voluntary commitments to mental health care. The number of involuntary commitments rose to 248 last year from 157 in 2015, he said. (State law allows police officers as well as mental health clinicians to apply to commit someone against their will to a psychiatric unit for evaluation or treatment for up to three days). The number of voluntary commitments increased over the same period to 580 from 404, a record high, Warnick said.
This post was updated Feb. 7, 2023, with comments from police spokesperson Jeremy Warnick.