Monday, May 20, 2024

Party for Socialism and Liberation protest at a Jan. 12 meeting about the killing of Arif Sayed Faisal. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Cambridge City Manager’s Office is in talks with protesters to meet and discuss their demands around the death of Arif Sayed Faisal, who was shot fatally by police Jan. 4 in Cambridgeport while experiencing a mental health crisis.

“We’re moving in the direction” of a Tuesday meeting, but there are details such as a location  to work out, City Manager Yi-An Huang said Sunday by phone. “I understand they want clear answers, and I’d like to have a real dialogue.”

An email from the the Party for Socialism and Liberation on Sunday said the city had agreed to meet its representatives and students from area universities on Tuesday, and that a rally was planned for outside City Hall on Monday at 5:30 p.m. That’s the same time as a City Council meeting, which will be held online-only and discuss police issues related to the killing, including getting body cameras that will be worn by police. Some council meetings have been disrupted by protests calling for “Justice for Faisal,” leading to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui calling for recesses and resuming the meetings in an online format.

The Party for Socialism and Liberation demands that the city release the names of the officers involved and an unredacted police report of the incident, but also that all the officers involved be “fired immediately,” according to its email, and that the city “prosecute the officers involved to the full extent of the law.”

“For more than two months, the City of Cambridge has done very little to address the outpouring of anger and grief from the community over the senseless murder,” the email says. –“When activists attended City Council meetings and demanded that the murder of Faisal be put on the agenda, Mayor Siddiqui and city councillors walked out.”

“We hope the City of Cambridge comes forward to seriously address our demands with a meaningful resolution,” the group. “The community will be watching closely to ensure that the City of Cambridge takes our demands seriously.”

A message was left Sunday on the voice mail of Party for Socialism and Liberation media representative Matthew Kennedy.

Getting to a dialogue

The city reached out to the group two weeks ago in response to the group’s “pretty sustained presence at council meetings” and announced intention to occupy City Hall, Huang said. “The PSL have shown themselves to be very effective at organizing students.” 

The group responded Thursday, leading to talks to find a way to sit down for a dialogue, Huang said.

“Police reform is complex. It’ll take a willingness to see each other as human to grapple with that,” said Huang, once an activist himself on a global health mission to reform U.S. practices around the availability of drugs treating HIV and AIDS. “Protesting is a legitimate form of political discourse, but I’d rather have a conversation to [have the sides] be better understood.”

The city would be happy to meet with other constituencies as well around the killing of Faisal, Huang said.

Review of police practices

In addition to the move toward getting body cameras for police, the city has a review by the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum to discuss Monday with councillors. The review was announced Friday. Jeremy Warnick, director of communications and media relations for Cambridge police, said the group’s contract was for $107,500, but did not give an expected finish date – just that the group would begin work immediately on a review of policies and procedures needed for an ongoing accreditation process before moving to an investigation of Faisal’s death. Huang talked about matters related to the police and safety in a community update released Sunday.

A report will be delivered “within three months of PERF conducting their last interview and/or receiving their last requested item(s) following the completion of an independent inquest,” Warnick said. The report will be made available to the public through the Cambridge Police website.

PERF was “selected after a review was conducted with other national organizations with law enforcement knowledge. It was determined that they were uniquely suited due to their expertise and analysis of policy and procedures as well as their training capabilities,” Warnick said. He declined to name other groups considered to run the independent investigation or what steps would be taken to ensure an eventual report wouldn’t be seen as too friendly to police.

Cambridge police already use a PERF deescalation training program called Integrating Communications, Assessment and Tactics that is supposed to help officers deal with people in a mental health crisis and who have a weapon but not a gun. It was introduced in November 2018.

Pushing for real reform

The group could be perceived as insiders, Huang acknowledged, but any group getting the contract would need a sense of how police work – and PERF “does have a track record of pushing for real police reform. Some work they’re doing goes pretty far, and I don’t think the organization is trying to do a whitewash.”

Huang noted that Chuck Wexler, the group’s executive director, was quoted in a “scathing” editorial in The Boston Globe as agreeing with protesters that the name of the officer who shot Faisal should be released.

The PERF report, researched and written by a seven-member team, will go beyond an inquest that began in February, which looks just at whether there was a criminal act committed Jan. 4, Huang said. And its work “will ultimately be judged” on its findings. The team includes four law enforcement professionals, including training experts, and three civilian members, one of whom specializes in officer-involved shooting investigations, Warnick said in a Friday press release.

The Cambridge Police Department under commission Christine Elow has welcomed every chance at review and improvement, and “we want real change,” Huang said. “There is real work to do to increase trust and accountability.”

The review by PERF “will help us continue to learn and grow from the Jan. 4 fatal shooting, particularly from the lens of our policies and procedures,” Elow said in the Friday release. Recommendations on less-than-lethal alternatives to police weapons are expected as well and “how we could evolve … alternative responses to mental health crises.”