Monday, May 27, 2024

A protester at a June 20, 2020, rally on Cambridge Common, part of the summer’s movement to redirect some funds to social work from police. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Three years after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and two months after the killing of a 20-year-old Bengali man in Cambridgeport, a City Council policy order for non-police response to some emergencies included a call Monday to happen “as quickly as possible.” The need for fast action after a long delay was also brought up by residents during a public comment period.

But the order underlining support for a new, citizen-led unarmed emergency response team known as Heart will wait at least two weeks for a vote, after a co-sponsor, councillor Patty Nolan, pulled it temporarily from consideration for “a little more time to work out concerns” about wording.

“I fully support Heart and I expect it to move forward,” Nolan said, reached by phone after the meeting. The problem was whether “language in the policy order around how 911 calls would be handled is in line with the collaborative effort that we should be seeing between the council and the Community Safety Department and Heart.”

The line Nolan expects to negotiate with the order’s author, councillor Quinton Zondervan, asks that a contract with the city “include but not be limited to Heart responding to certain 911 calls.” 

The Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team was first voted support June 7, 2021. Councillors such as Nolan hoped that “if we pass this tonight we’ll see results without delay” from the office of then city manager Louis A. DePasquale. The plan arose out of 2020’s summer of protest after the murder of George Floyd and other people of color at the hands of law enforcement, and amid demands to defund police departments and put the money toward social workers to handle more crises without weapons. The city prioritized its own unarmed Department of Community Safety, which was proposed at the same time.

That department would be funded with $3 million annually, including $1.5 million for contracted services with community partners such as Heart. A little over a year later, with the department still coming together and Heart training on its own through pluck and grant money applied for independently, an emotionally disturbed Arif Sayed Faisal was shot by a police officer who said Faisal was moving toward officers with a knife.

Community Safety Department

The aftermath of the death is being handled by new City Manager Yi-An Huang. In January he said he was moving the Community Safety Department out of the city’s emergency communications department because “it is a little bit difficult to think about some of that alternative response sitting ultimately within what is part of the public safety infrastructure.” Liz Speakman, coordinator for gender and domestic violence prevention, was appointed to take over from emergency communications director Christina Giacobbe.

The department was expected to come online this month, and the city hasn’t released a new timeline despite Huang’s changes.

Trained civilians could have deescalated Faisal’s behavior “with words,” and Heart’s responders had the skills to do it, said member Amanda Rosanna at a Jan. 14 protest rally in Harvard Square. The city’s delay in signing a contract with the organization “has led to the killing of a young person from our community,” Rosanna said.

Other co-responder groups and exerts say unarmed social workers would not be sent in to deal with armed people in crisis.

Residents in support

More than 15 residents spoke Monday in support of Heart as a crisis responder that deserved activation with a city contract.

“I’ve seen Heart develop since its early days and I’m deeply impressed by and confident in its training program and [work as] EMT responders,” said Huma Gupta, an MIT professor who said the killing of Faisal was “so shocking and troubling to both my students who struggle with these mental illnesses and myself, because we knew it could have easily been any of them.”

Residents spoke explicitly to the aspect of the order that Nolan found troublesome. Carolyn Magid of Reed Street called for a contract signed “as quickly as possible“ for services that “would include Heart responding to certain 911 calls.”

The order “is in no way meant as a rebuke” to the new city manager, who “has pledged to support Heart and is making moves in that direction,” Zondervan said.

The intent was simply to put the council on record in support and add urgency, as “to quote Martin Luther King ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’” Zondervan said. “So I hope that we will not delay this or delay our support of Heart.”

The order can’t return March 13, because the council has a roundtable scheduled to discuss a municipal broadband feasibility study, but is likely to get a vote March 20.