Wednesday, June 12, 2024

A screen capture from Jan. 4 surveillance video shows police officers in Cambridgeport following a man who was self-harming. (Image: 7 News Boston)

The city is being asked to give up the names of police officers involved in the Jan. 4 killing of Arif Sayed Faisal in Cambridgeport – now not just by protesters, who were joined last week by councillor Quinton Zondervan, but by a 5-4 majority of councillors in a Monday vote.

The order that passed wasn’t quite the one Zondervan filed a week ago, though, which wanted the names released immediately and a full policy in place within one regular meeting about releasing the names of police in any use-of-force case. Instead, it was a substitute motion that asked for a report back on a naming order as soon as possible and no later than June 26, before regular meetings stop for most of July and August.

The voted policy applies to cases of injury and death “retroactively,” meaning including the killing of Faisal four and a half months ago.

It was the first formal call for release of the names, though several councillors have spoken in favor of it over the months while city staff have reminded the public that officers names would become public anyway at the end of an inquest.

“I don’t quite understand what’s taking so long,” councillor Marc McGovern told City Manager Yi-An Huang, who was present to take questions with police commissioner Christine Elow. “We need a policy before we release the officer’s name, but I don’t see why that policy can’t come forward within the next couple of weeks and well before the court releases the officer’s name.”

The two hours of public comment that came before council debate was almost wholly about Faisal and a call for the names to be made public as a matter of “justice” for Faisal’s family.

Information after investigation

Faisal was shot fatally by police in Cambridgeport while experiencing a mental health crisis. He was self-harming, but had been running from confrontation around the neighborhood while holding a large knife. Police say a seven-year veteran of the force with no complaints on his record fired on Faisal, 20, when he shook off a nonlethal round and moved toward officers with it still in his hand.

The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office finished an investigation within weeks, allowing a judge’s inquest to start in February. Cambridge has also launched its own investigation and reexamination of deescalation and lethal-force policies with the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum – an organization that endorses release of the officers’ names.

A week ago, after Zondervan filed his original motion for immediate release of the names, councillor Paul Toner proposed a substitute eliminating any timeline. Councillors Patty Nolan and E. Denise Simmons were co-sponsors. That led Zondervan to “charter right” his own order, setting action aside for a meeting to “give my colleagues an opportunity to reconsider.”

Strong reaction

Little had changed over the week, and Zondervan’s opening remarks on the returning substitute motion were harsh.

Noting that the Toner motion crossed out the facts of the case he’d included, Zondervan quoted the political activist Angela Davis from her recent appearance at the MLK Celebration brunch at MIT in February in saying racism persisted because of “ideology.”

“Ideology animates my colleagues to offer these whitewashing amendments. How else do you explain changing the factual statements?” Zondervan asked. “Why do my colleagues find it necessary to take the words of truth away and change them to the words of passivity, the words of ideology, the words of unaccountability and cowardice, the words of ‘tragic things happen.’”

“This substitute is very sloppy, and very misleading in its construction” because it calls for a naming policy and suggests the original order didn’t, Zondervan said later.

Minds made up

McGovern moved to add back the facts from Jan. 4, and Zondervan moved to ensure that the names of officers from the Faisal shooting were included in any policy, revealing a difference of opinion among the councillors behind the substitute: Nolan agreed with the naming of officers once a policy was in place; Simmons and Toner did not.

Toner – whose background in education gives him extensive experience in labor negotiations – pointed to the need for department buy-in as likely slowing a naming policy, considering that officers also have to negotiate the deployment of body cameras since Faisal’s killing. (It was an understanding confirmed by Huang, who said staff had to “build out what this means within the department.”) Meanwhile, investigations have been underway for three months that will end with the release of information about the Jan. 4 death.

“We’re waiting for the final investigation to be concluded and released. And I appreciate the testimony that folks have made, and I understand your passion about the subject. I just am concerned about releasing anybody’s name when I hear things like ‘police brutality,’ ‘murder,’ ‘execution,’” Toner said, quoting the dozens of speakers during public comment. “It sounds like people have already made their mind up about the situation, and I’m waiting for a final report.”

Community organizer Matthew Kennedy, a leader of the protests over the past months, said Tuesday that the names should be released so anyone aware of troubling aspects from the officers’ pasts could come forward. He rejected the idea that the protesters’ approach, and choice of words, should play a role in councillor’s votes. “We don’t regret using those terms, because that’s what it was – murder,” Kennedy said, “Our stance is that killing somebody [under these circumstances] is not okay, and that by itself is misconduct, It’s possible to [defuse a situation with someone in emotional distress] without killing.”

The votes

In addition to including the names of officers from the Jan. 4 shooting in a policy, Zondervan tried to get them named by the June 26 deadline. His call for retroactivity in the policy succeeded 6-3, with only Toner, Nolan and Simmons against, but his deadline failed by the same proportion, with only him, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and vice mayor Alanna Mallon in favor.

As the mayor and a city clerk declared the procedure, Toner’s amended motion then replaced Zondervan’s with a final 5-4 vote: Burhan Azeem, Dennis Carlone, McGovern, Nolan and Simmons in favor; and Mallon, Toner, Zondervan and Siddiqui against – Toner because his motion now called for release of the names of officers from the Faisal shooting.

“We all understand the urgency of coming up with policy,” said Elow, the police commissioner. “We had a meeting even today [with the Police Executive Research Forum]. We are all as anxious as the council is to have some firm policy in place.”

An organizer’s reaction

The ultimate vote didn’t go over well with Kennedy. “The city councillors really showed their true colors,” he said.“They like to claim they care about transparency and accountability,” but when given a chance to show it “they chose to show not to.”

The protests may have succeeded in getting the issue of naming the officers on the council’s agenda, but that was all, Kennedy said. The motion that passed Monday was “a muted version” of what activists wanted – “not nothing, but just pushing things off into the future.”

Involving police more in the policymaking, as the city manager and Toner discussed, was “a blatant conflict of interest” to Kennedy. Police are “going to be against any accountability, because they’re the ones who are at fault.”

Meanwhile, the protesters had “overwhelming community support for releasing the names,” as shown by the more than 1,000 names on a petition – albeit in a city of some 120,000 people – and support they see when showing up to speak at City Hall. “If people disagree, where are they?” Kennedy asked.

This post was updated May 23, 2023, to correct that Angela Davis spoke at an MIT brunch and to add remarks by protest organizer Matthew Kennedy.