Thursday, June 20, 2024

Barbara J. Dougan, legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Massachusetts chapter, speaks at a Jan. 9 protest at Cambridge City Hall. (Photo: Tom Meek)

An independent inquest process by a judge into a fatal Jan. 4 police shooting has begun, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said in a terse announcement Thursday.

“Per order of the court, no further details will be provided until the completion of the process,” Ryan said in the two-sentence press release sent shortly after 4:30 p.m., adding that the inquest was based on a request from her office Jan. 11.

In Cambridge, police department spokesperson Jeremy Warnick called the announcement “an encouraging sign for the speed of investigation and being able to take the next step” toward releasing information around the incident. To the best of Warnick’s knowledge, that was still dependent on the end of the inquest.

That may yet be months, according to law enforcement officials, independent lawyers and a review of past cases.

Arif Sayed Faisal, 20, a Bangladeshi immigrant who lived with his family in Cambridgeport, was killed after jumping out the first-floor window of a family apartment. Faisal was seen cutting himself with glass shards and a large knife called a kukri and led police on a chase around the neighborhood, continuing to harm himself. After officers caught up with him in a backyard on Chestnut Street, one shot him with a “less-than-lethal” foam-tipped projectile that had no effect, police said. Another officer then shot him with a gun when he moved toward police with the knife, and he died in a hospital.

Warning of “Nothing fast”

Family, the Bangladeshi community and allies have been grappling angrily with how long it might take for them to get a sense of closure around Faisal’s death – even including learning the name of the police officer involved, which officials say will be withheld until after investigations are complete.

“Nothing fast is going to happen here,” said Barbara J. Dougan at a Jan. 9 protest over the death.

Dougan is legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Massachusetts chapter, as well as serving as lawyer for Faisal’s family and, according to Ryan on Jan. 12, a spokeswoman for family members when their emotions were too raw to engage with law enforcement.

Describing the “legal process that will be unfolding” in response to Faisal’s death, Dougan outlined a long slog, starting with an investigation by Ryan. Then a judge will hold an inquest to determine whether “there is probable cause for a charge of criminal negligence against the officer” who shot Faisal, she said. As part of the process. Ryan’s office turns over findings to the judge, but the judge conducts an independent investigation and can ask for evidence from other sources.

Dougan warned family and allies last month that the inquest might not be until 2024, as cases stemming from January 2022 were just then being scheduled.

But that was based on information available at the time. “The process is moving much more quickly than anticipated, which the family greatly appreciates,” Dougan said in a Friday email.

Changed procedure

Ryan said her office changed procedures in 2018 around investigating police-involved deaths, adding the inquest instead of just having the DA investigate and decide whether to charge an officer on its own.

If the judge decides an officer acted criminally, the DA’s office will take the case to a grand jury and charge the officer, Ryan said. In an inquest, “people know that what’s being said is being said under oath,” she said Jan. 12. “It’s designed to be a process that helps a community.” So far, there have been three inquests, with one resulting in charges, Ryan said. One more began in January and a fifth was scheduled for this month.

It will take at least seven to eight months to complete the process in Faisal’s death, mainly because of the time required to get reports from the medical examiner and other forensic information.

An email was sent to Ryan’s office Thursday to ask if the inquest was beginning faster than expected, and how that might have been achieved.

In a third process, Cambridge police are holding an internal review process, which will be finished when the department gets “completed findings from the district attorney’s investigation,” police commissioner Christine Elow said in a Feb. 14 letter. By statute, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office assumes control of a death investigation, including the use of deadly force. All the evidence, reports and findings of the Middlesex District Attorney’s independent investigation and inquest … will be made public.”

City councillors also called Feb. 6 for an independent review into Cambridge police deescalation methods, in what amounts to a fourth look at the events resulting in Faisal’s death.

Sue Reinert contributed to this report. It was updated Feb. 24, 2023, with an additional comment from Barbara J. Dougan.