Thursday, June 13, 2024

Protesters gather at Cambridge City Hall on March 20 to call for “Justice for Faisal,” including the name of the officer involved in a Jan. 4 fatal shooting. (Photo: Adri Pray)

Cambridge officials have been barred by a judge for months from identifying the police officer involved in a fatal Jan. 4 shooting in Cambridgeport, city councillors learned from a memo discussed at their Monday meeting. The inability to name the officer also came as a surprise to police commissioner Christine Elow and city solicitor Nancy Glowa.

Protesters have been disrupting council meetings since late January with calls for the officer to be identified, fired and prosecuted as various legal processes investigate what happened to cause the death of Arif Sayed Faisal, a 20-year-old suffering a mental health crisis. He was holding a large knife to self-harm, according to law enforcement officials, but was shot when he moved toward police with it in hand.

Among several reasons given in Elow’s memo against identifying the officer is that the judge overseeing an inquest into the case “has issued an expansive protective order preventing all parties involved, including the Cambridge Police Department, from releasing any additional information until the inquest is completed and the court issues a report.”

“This is the first I’ve heard about it, and that’s four months later,” said councillor Quinton Zondervan, who in May joined in protesters’ call to release the name as well as a general policy to name officers in use-of-force incidents. 

This outcome was more or less explained as early as mid-January by Middlesex County district attorney Marian Ryan and other officials. In addition, “I do believe that there was an order upon the start of the inquest process when the judge was assigned,” City Manager Yi-An Huang told councillors Monday. “I think the court order was summarized in the district attorney’s press release upon the beginning of the inquest process.”

That was Feb. 23, when Ryan released a two-sentence press release that included: “Per order of the court, no further details will be provided until the completion of the process.”

“It’s a little awkward. We were simply told, at a certain point, that the order applies to the city,” Glowa said. “We inquired of the District Attorney’s Office and determined that the judge in the court, when we raised that question, had emphatically said, ‘Yes, this applies to the City of Cambridge, it applies to all information relating to this case, including the name of the officer.’ And that was news to us.”

Other reasons cited

Cambridge officials have reasons to withhold the name even if that weren’t the case, according to Elow’s memo.

While police nationwide are “beginning to shift” on identifying officers in force incidents, no Massachusetts force has done so, Elow wrote. A final report on a policy is due with consultants “within the next few weeks” – after which it will go to Cambridge’s two police unions for review. The consultants, the Police Executive Research Forum, have expressed support for naming officers involved in shootings.

Elow’s department does not publicly name subjects of criminal investigations until there is an arrest, an indictment or the court issues an arrest warrant, she noted, and there is a constitutional right to privacy.

Naming officer could boomerang

Police and the district attorney also have an “investigatory privilege” that can mean withholding details that in a court case would “probably so prejudice the possibility of effective law enforcement that such disclosure would not be in the public interest.” The city wouldn’t want to release information that would complicate a case, Elow said.

Similarly, the department’s “interests as a law enforcement agency may differ from the interests of the department as an employer,” meaning the naming of an officer could make the department liable legally in a lawsuit – the same reason the unions will get a look at the policy proposed by the consultants, as the unions would back officers who felt they’d been identified unfairly.

Police officials have said only that the officer involved in the shooting is a seven-year veteran of the force with no complaints on his record. The officer is on paid leave from the department while investigations are underway.

No official has information as to when the judge’s inquest will be over. After the judge makes a finding, the district attorney decides whether to bring charges; the judge has no power to order charges.

Policy is still on the way

Zondervan said he didn’t see how releasing the officer’s name would affect the inquest, which Glowa brushed back as off-topic: “An order of the court is a very black-and-white thing, and not something that we can ignore.”

Still, Elow said she was committed to drafting a policy about releasing officers names in future deadly use-of-force incidents, though “hopefully, we never have something like this happen again.”

“This is a learning experience for all of us,” Glowa said. “It had been the city’s past practice not to release information about employees pending disciplinary investigations. And that was a general policy or practice of the city, but it was not in writing. As this has all unfurled we have been learning more about what’s here now and what we need to learn and do better.”