Thursday, June 20, 2024

Police in Cambridgeport on Jan. 4 after an officer shot Arif Sayed Faisal. (Photo: Brandon Constant)

Cambridge police officers brought suspects to the ground, struck their knees and used other types of force in 66 incidents last year, 40 percent more than in 2021, the Cambridge Police Department reported Wednesday. For the first time, the department’s use-of-force report included race, ethnicity, gender and age of the people subjected to forcible treatment, and it showed that the majority – 65 percent – were black or Hispanic.

That figure also increased from 2021, when 53 percent of suspects treated with force were people of color. The figure in 2020 was 58 percent, the report said.

A long-awaited Procedural Justice Dashboard that will collect and post demographic information about arrests, citations and summonses “will be able to enhance the department’s ability to monitor and interpret demographic data of the police-citizen interactions, providing insight into possible racial profiling or racially biased policing, specifically as it relates to use-of-force incidents for this report,” the report said. The Police Department said last month it expects the dashboard to debut Aug. 15.

The number of incidents may have increased partly because calls for service dropped sharply during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, then surged last year, the report said. There was also more crime in 2022 than in 2021. Overall, police used force in a tiny proportion of the 106,027 service calls last year – 0.06 percent – but it was higher than the 0.05 percent of calls in 2021, the report said.

Hours after the report was released, the chair of the city’s Police Review and Advisory Board, Alexandra Fallon, told councillors at a meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee that she would urge the board to “audit” the use-of-force report by digging into a sample of incidents, including possibly flagging those involving unhoused people. Fallon said she wanted to question police about the cases.

Possible examination of Faisal case


Fallon also suggested that the board could examine police and prosecutor investigations of the fatal police shooting of Arif Sayed Faisal on Jan 4 after a court inquest into Faisal’s death determines whether the unnamed officer who shot him should be held criminally responsible. It’s not known when the judge conducting the inquest will complete it.

Faisal was seen jumping through a window of his family’s first-floor apartment on Putnam Avenue with a machetelike knife, later identified as a kukri, and cutting himself with the knife and broken glass. He fled from police when they arrived, running through the Cambridgeport neighborhood still carrying the knife and injuring himself.

Police caught up with Faisal in a backyard on Chestnut Street. An officer in a group shot him when he moved toward them, refused to drop the knife and a “less-than-lethal” foam-tipped projectile failed to stop him, police said. Cambridge police do not have body cameras; it’s not known whether there is video of the shooting. His death set off prolonged demonstrations, including loud protests at City Council meetings that forced the City Council to meet virtually.

More assertive stance?

Fallon’s statements could herald a more assertive stance by the board, established in 1984. It can review but not conduct investigations of complaints made to it and to police; the police  themselves investigate. The board can recommend action to the police commissioner or city manager but has no disciplinary power. It examines complaints and makes recommendations in private and it rarely finds police at fault.

It also emerged this year that the board failed to file required quarterly reports of its actions or review department budgets with the City Council. City councillor Quinton Zondervan wanted state permission to elect its members instead of see them appointed by the city manager, a motion voted down May 22 with only Zondervan in favor. An elected body “would provide a basic level of transparency and accountability for the community,” he said.

Fallon said an examination of the use-of-force report would give the board an alternative to “just waiting for complaints to come to the formal PRAB board, which … are low in number.” Speaking of looking into investigations of Faisal’s death, she said advisory board members could question police about the inquest report and other findings “and have them respond to any concerns that we have, get further clarification where things might not be clear. I know the Cambridge Police Department has conducted their own internal review of the situation. And so they may have additional insight to bear beyond what’s in the [inquest] report. So I would definitely like to have some sort of public discussion about the contents.”

Suspects and officers hurt

The department’s 2022 use-of-force report is the first since 2018, although both include information from previous years. Although the newer document focused on force used against suspects, it said the number of assaults of police officers increased by 58 percent last year compared with 2021, “signifying a possible increase in hostility toward police.”

Fourteen percent of incidents where force was used involved mental health calls, including one in which three officers used “hands-on force” to put a 16-year-old girl in an ambulance for an involuntary evaluation at a hospital. In another case involving people under 19, police chased a 16-year-old boy who was armed and tackled him to the ground, the report said.

Eight suspects were hurt when police used force, most of them with minor injuries such as cuts and abrasions; one had broken ribs and another suffered more serious abrasions and a head contusion after an officer brought him to the ground “after witnessing an assault,” the report said. Officers were hurt in 10 cases, including lower-body and back injuries, bites and cuts and abrasions.

More hands, fewer weapons

An analysis of the six years starting in 2017 showed that the number of hands-on force incidents has increased, while the use of nightsticks declined to just one incident in 2022. Police did not use pepper spray at all last year. Still, the number of cases in which officers pointed guns at suspects increased to 13 in 2022 from 10 in 2021. Aside from in the Jan. 4 killing of Faisal, police have not fired at anyone since 2017.

Of those 13 incidents, three involved suspects with a gun or knife; police had reports of armed suspects in three other cases, though they did not recover weapons, the report said. It wasn’t clear whether one of those incidents involved an unfounded report of a weapon; four officers drew their guns when they confronted “numerous” people of all ages and races and searched them, the report said.

That leaves seven other incidents when police pointed their guns. The report said four involved stolen cars and three involved robberies. Police spokesperson Jeremy Warnick was asked why police would threaten to use deadly force in those circumstances.

He said three of the stolen-car cases involved “felony stops” in which the car was confirmed to be stolen and it was running. In the fourth case, a suspect had driven the stolen car into two police cruisers. The robberies involved bank heists in which the suspects had previously threatened to use a gun, although not in the incidents to which Cambridge police responded.

Firing BB guns from a car

At the Public Safety Committee meeting on Wednesday, councillor Quinton Zondervan reported receiving information about a recent traffic stop that seemed to involve racial profiling – he called it “driving a Tesla while black” – but that turned out to be an incomplete recounting of the incident. Zondervan said he had been told that police pulled over a young black man driving the high-end electric car and pointed guns at the driver. Later, he said the driver and passengers were forced out at gunpoint and police searched the car, then let everyone leave.

Police responded Monday to reports by witnesses that they heard shots and saw a passenger firing out of a car window on Wendell Street in the Baldwin neighborhood. Officers found the car with driver and passengers in a nearby Lesley University parking lot, Warnick said. They drew their guns because of the reports of shots, searched the car and found a BB gun that looked like a revolver, an Airsoft rifle – which is another type of BB weapon – along with ammunition and magazines. One passenger, a 20-year-old former Cambridge resident now living in Malden, received a summons for having an unlicensed weapon, firing a BB gun and disturbance of the peace.

Warnick said Quincy police stopped the same Tesla on Sunday and also found two pellet guns. Asked to comment, Zondervan said: “I think the PRAB should look into this incident and the police’s practices in general around who gets pulled over and searched.”

The 2022 use-of-force report said last year’s numbers are nearly the same as the 10-year average “because of the continuous emphasis on training and policy compliance.” It cited its training program for cadets at Northeastern University and said the department is seeking accreditation and modernizing its policies. “The Cambridge Police Department strives toward continuously improving and adapting to the public safety needs of the City of Cambridge in alignment with the four pillars of procedural justice: fairness, voice, transparency, and impartiality,” the report said.