Friday, April 19, 2024

On stage Jan. 12 at a meeting about a fatal shooting are, from left, Cambridge police commissioner Christine Elow, City Manager Yi-An Huang, moderator Brian Corr and city spokesperson Lee Gianetti. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A commitment to change “with urgency” how police respond to mental health crises was made in a Tuesday letter to the community from Cambridge City Manager Yi-An Huang – a response to to the Jan. 4 killing by police of Arif Sayed Faisal in Cambridgeport. But the letter also expressed support for police commissioner Christine Elow and confirmation that the name of the officer in the shooting will not be revealed until after investigations are complete. 

In recognition that the city “needs a clearer and more transparent policy addressing” issues around the shooting, Huang said he asked for a letter from Elow to accompany his own.

“The department is in the midst of a complete review and update of our policies, procedures, rules and regulations. This will include developing a more formal policy for the timing and distribution of information following a critical incident,” Elow said. Parts of the review were underway already by the Cambridge Police Department for an accrediting agency, but Faisal’s killing prompted a deeper dive, she said.

What remained unchanged was resistance to revealing the name of the officer involved in the shooting, despite pressure from the Bangladeshi community and allies and the editorial board of The Boston Globe, which argued Saturday for the City Council to “rise to this occasion” and keep applying political pressure to Huang and Elow until “the public gets the answers it deserves.” At least one of the answers the Globe wants – about police training – was given as far back as Jan. 12, at a meeting where Huang and Elow took questions from audience members.

Faisal, 20, a Somerville High School graduate and student at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, on a gap year, was killed by police gunfire after he was seen self-harming with shards of glass and a large knife, which he kept with him as he ran around the neighborhood, police said. He still had it when he ignored a nonlethal “sponge round” fired at him and moved toward officers, prompting one to shoot, police said. Faisal died at a hospital the same day.

Officer’s name

Revealing the officer’s name could help assess whether there are “past incidents or lawsuits” that cast his actions in a different light, the Globe said. In her letter, Elow confirmed that the officer, who remains on paid leave, has faced no complaints over the course of his seven-year career with the Cambridge Police Department.

By comparison, in the infamous arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2009, the arresting officer was an 11-year veteran of CPD with eight complaints against him, including two in which he was accused of showing racial bias. He was cleared in all cases. (At the time, Elow was a deputy superintendent who led the police department’s Professional Standards unit.)

The name of the officer in Faisal’s case has been known in the community since shortly after the shooting, and not everyone was convinced of its importance, Huang and Elow were told Jan. 12.

“The identity of the officer involved in this tragedy, I’ll call it, does not change [anything]. Be it the beginning, middle or end of this investigation, that person remains the same. I personally know who the officer is. I could say the name right now, but it would not be productive,” said Isaac Yablo, a policy and research director in The Office of Black Male Advancement in Boston City Hall. His remarks were delivered in front of hundreds of people and recorded by media.

Consistent policy

Cambridge officials’ position around naming the officer has been consistent over the past month.

“In cases with clear and egregious misconduct, as in the recent case in Memphis, we would take immediate action” on releasing a name, Huang said, referring to the beating death of Tyre Nichols in Tennessee last month. “But I hope that we can recognize that our police officers sometimes face complex, difficult and dangerous situations – and that there are cases where we can’t make an immediate judgment.”

In most investigations, “suspects’ names are not released to the public until there is a high probability of criminal charges. That right to privacy during an investigation is also a fair standard for our officers. While I understand the call for blanket transparency in all fatal police shootings, I believe that making a determination based on each case is reasonable,” Huang said.

“At this point in the administrative investigation, the department has not identified significant violations,” Huang said. “We are prepared to reassess based on additional evidence that emerges from the district attorney’s independent investigation.”

In providing information on police actions to Cambridge Day, public information officers have been consistent in not identifying the names of suspects until after an arrest, and names of police officers charged with crimes are provided as well. The most recent example was Michael Daniliuk, an officer charged in August with driving under the influence of alcohol and failing to stop at a red light in a crash that ended when his car struck three motorcyclists. 

Calls by councillors

City councillors have not publicly pressed for officials to release the name of the officer who shot Faisal.

Huang said he was “fully committed” to many changes called for since the shooting, including those recommended by the City Council.

“We will implement body cameras,” Huang said. “We will evaluate additional less-lethal options. We will deliver a procedural justice dashboard. We will hire a credible, independent consultant to review and make recommendations across our police department’s training, policies and practices and the full report will be made public. We will seek to strengthen the city’s mental health resources and enhance our outreach to underserved communities. And we will continue to be in dialogue with the council and the community on how we can keep improving.”

Support for alternative response

There was also a commitment to use alternative, unarmed responses to emergency calls outside of the police department – though it’s not clear if such an organization would respond without an accompanying police officer to situations involving violence.

A $3 million Community Safety Department may start operating as soon as next month. Huang said Jan. 18 he was moving the agency out of the emergency communications department – giving it more distance from police – and empowering its leader to help negotiate a starter contract with a citizen-led, unarmed response team named Heart. In addition to $300,000 in federal Covid-relief funds delivered through the city, that Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team now has state funding and expects to begin work in the summer, co-director Corinne Espinoza said Monday.

The city manager also expressed support for Elow. “I know that she is the right leader for our great city in this difficult moment. She is deeply rooted in our community, open-minded, and committed to change. She has my full support and trust,” Huang said.

Protesters speak

Though protesters have continued to disrupt City Council meetings as recently as Feb. 6 with demands for the names of police officers, other talking points used in the heat of the moment have faded.

When protesters first arrived at City Hall on Jan. 5, they questioned the police description of Faisal as being in psychological crisis, though listened without comment when a speaker later referred to him as “suicidal.”

At the Jan. 12 meeting, there were repeated complaint of police “knocking on doors” at night and intimidating members of an already terrified Bangladeshi community, as well as calls to Elow to make the practice stop. After the meeting, however, president of the Bangladesh Association of New England Pervin Chowdhury and another community leader agreed that they knew of only a handful of examples of the door-knocking, and they came immediately after the killing.

Jeremy Warnick, a spokesperson for Cambridge police, said Jan. 18 that a “comprehensive internal follow-up” confirmed that police detectives knocked on doors of homes in the area of the shooting until approximately 6:30 to 7 p.m. Jan. 4. Only phone calls “conducted in support of the investigation” were made afterward.