Saturday, June 22, 2024

Police commissioner Christine Elow leaves Sullivan Chamber in Cambridge City Hall ahead of a protest at Monday’s meeting of the City Council. (Image: screen capture from meeting livestream)

Around 40 people protesting a police shooting disrupted Monday’s meeting of the City Council with concerns about how officers handle people in mental health crises and why they don’t wear body cameras – forcing officials to switch to a remote meeting format in which they handled a range of agenda items on those topics, including calling for an independent review of Cambridge police deescalation methods and for the city manager to take immediate steps to get body cameras on city law enforcement.

Some councillors have already met with City Manager Yi-An Huang about the independent review, and he “did not have any concerns or questions and is looking forward to engaging in what this calls for,” Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said.

This is a shift from a special council meeting in January at which Huang worried a third-party investigation might be “premature” and police commissioner Christine Elow told the city’s elected body that it “doesn’t have a role in setting [police] policies.”

The review is intended to take place more quickly than one by the District Attorney’s Office and a subsequent judge’s inquest. “We can’t wait a year to hear the outcome of an investigation into this horrific tragedy. We need to act right now,” vice mayor Alanna Mallon said.

It will also delve into deeper issues than the district attorney, who will look only at whether the Jan. 4 police shooting of Arif Sayed Faisal, 20, in Cambridgeport is considered justified or unjustified on the part of the officer and then what the charge might be, councillor Marc McGovern said.

“It doesn’t really get into the inner workings of of our police department and from the time the 911 call came in, did we do everything we were supposed to? Did we do it the way we should have? Did we do it the way our training has taught our officers?” McGovern said. “Looking at that is really important, so that we can we can learn from from this.”

Finding that everything went according to procedure was the most likely outcome “and the most challenging,” councillor Quinton Zondervan warned. “If all the policies and procedures were followed, and they lead to people dying, that’s a problem.”

Protests since a shooting

Faisal was seen jumping through a first-floor family apartment window and cutting his wrists with broken glass and a large knife. When police arrived, he fled, running through the neighborhood and continuing to cut himself, police said. He refused to drop the knife when officers caught up to him in a backyard, and a shot from a nonlethal weapon had no effect; an officer shot when he moved toward them still holding, they said. He died at Massachusetts General Hospital.

That the officer involved has been placed on paid leave and not identified, let alone fired, has been a key complaint as members of the Bangladeshi community and allies have demonstrated and disrupted a few meetings. A Jan. 23 council meeting was forced to go remote too to get through the night’s business.

On Monday, after resident Charles Franklin gave public comment in grudging support of Cambridge police as “in general okay” and of their wearing body cameras – or, better yet, of patrolling without guns – a speaker identified as Hana Flores took to the microphone. She demanded the names of officers involved in the shooting and, when told by Siddiqui she could direct her comments more specifically to the several police-related items on the agenda, instead said she would “take up the space now because this should be the only thing that we’re talking about – getting justice for Sayed Arif Faisal.”

“The lack of response is really telling, that nobody is wanting to talk about what if that was your son murdered?” she said as protesters began filtering into City Hall’s Sullivan Chamber. “Murdered having a mental health crisis. And we’ve all had mental health crises and had a family member that had a mental health crisis.”

As Elow left the room quickly behind her, past a sitting Police Review and Advisory Board executive director Brian Corr, the speaker continued: “You guys are looking at me and not doing anything. But it takes all of us to be here for [you] to actually do stuff. So why don’t police officers have body cameras? You guys have to start answering questions.”

Body cameras among agenda items

A police officer displays a body camera in a video from the City of Falls Church (Virginia) Government.

The agenda was filled with policy orders and staff responses about the killing and related issues – including that PRAB, which investigates some civilian complaints against police, hasn’t been filing required quarterly reports of its actions, and that the City Manager’s Office hasn’t been forwarding police department’s inventories of weapons and other equipment. (Huang took office in September; the last inventory arrived before him, in June.) Councillors also want action on a long-delayed police Procedural Justice Dashboard showing data on traffic stops, arrests and citations, which Mallon and McGovern called out as disappointingly stalled since 2019. Cambridge Day reported on failed rollout in 2020 and 2021.

The call for an independent investigation was embraced by all seven councillors present, as was one to get body cameras on police officers and find ways to use them without violating residents’ civil liberties and the City’s Surveillance Ordinance.

“It’s really important to note that this council has been pushing for greater accountability and transparency tools like body-worn cameras for some time now,” Mallon said. During 2021 budget hearings, councillors were told that a bidding document was being written for the cameras, with universal buy-in – including from police unions and the ACLU, which “was opposed to body-worn cameras but now has come around” and has legal language ready for adoption.

The police “understand that this is a tool for them as well, to help protect everybody,” Mallon said.

Zondervan had misgivings, given that “police shoot 1,000 people dead every year whether there are body cameras or not – the problem is the guns, not the body cameras.” In incidents such as the horrific, fatal Jan. 7 attack on Tyre Nichols by police in Memphis, Tennessee, “we don’t need video evidence to know that’s what happened, because it’s obvious,” Zondervan said.

To the contrary, McGovern said, the body cameras in Memphis showed that the story the officers concocted – that Nichols fought back and tried to grab a gun – was untrue. Charges filed against the offices “are a direct result of video footage, because they would have lied, and we know they would have lied,” McGovern said.

Nonlethal responses and traffic stops

In addition to the look at deescalation methods, councillors asked for more and better nonlethal responses police can use in certain confrontations. Officials have said the situation around Faisal carried risks for bystanders as he ran through the neighborhood with his kukri knife, described as 10 to 12 inches long, in an emotional state – even though he may have been intent only on self-harm.

It’s exactly why an independent analysis of current police techniques is needed, Mallon said.

“Our young people are experiencing mental health crises at an extent and depth that we cannot possibly understand, or even have the capacity to address with the health care professionals that we have in this moment,” Mallon said. “We really need to act, and act swiftly.”

With Nichols’ death stemming from a traffic stop, there’s also a new call from councillor Burhan Azeem, absent from Monday’s meeting, to explore getting armed police out of traffic enforcement. This is the third try, after a July 27, 2020, order was paused over legal concerns and one Sept. 14, 2020, went no further than a Public Safety Committee hearing. Councillor Paul Toner exercised his “charter right” to move discussion to next week, when Azeem might be back.