Friday, June 14, 2024

Mourners gather outside Fort Washington Park in Cambridgeport on Jan. 11 to remember Arif Sayed Faisal. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Cambridge Police Department could have “legally and ethically” named the police officer involved in a fatal Jan. 4 shooting in Cambridgeport, city councillors learned from a report from PERF, the Police Executive Research Forum, at their Aug. 7 meeting.

The report concluded that the issue of whether and when CPD should have released the officer’s name stemmed from the lack of clear protocol, but that the department is poised to lead Massachusetts in developing a clear policy to release police officers’ names after violence.

“PERF does not minimize the importance of officer safety, especially in the highly charged environment that can follow critical incidents,” the consultants’ report said. “But blanket denials based on safety, with no corresponding threat assessment, are hollow.”

Councillor Quinton Zondervan, who had joined protesters’ calls this year to release the name of the officer, said at the meeting that he was appreciative of the report, but still called attention to CPD’s choice to withhold the name from the public when national practice had seen officers across many states identified after use-of-force incidents.

“When we asked repeatedly for the name to be released, we were refused, and this report seems to vindicate our requests and says that it could have been done but it was not,” he said.

Bad examples

While receptive to the recommendations, City Manager Yi-An Huang defended the police department’s decision to not release the name and said other departments across the nation that have named officers involved in fatal shootings are “typically not models.”

“The police departments that have the most transparent policies [are] there because they’ve lost so much trust that they’ve been dragged into a much more radical set of transparency policies to at least start to restore trust,” Huang said. “Police departments are going to need to make that trade-off and move toward more radical transparency, and that’s what we’re agreeing to do.”

Police commissioner Christine Elow said the department was trying to be “intentional and thoughtful” about the process, and pointed to a lack of policy and practice surrounding officer-involved fatalities.

“To put that officer’s name out without any sort of process internally I do not feel would have been the best practice,” she said. “I understand the frustration that our community had about not releasing the name, but I also really appreciate the fact that we slowed down, we looked at what we were doing and we really looked to have a firm policy in place before we acted.”

Union negotiations

The next step, Elow said, is to draft the language and implement the policy for future accountability, but the department does not have a date for when it will be ready. “We’re working really hard with our unions to execute this policy and move it forward as quickly as possible,” she said.

The department and its unions are simultaneously discussing officers wearing body cameras. The cameras are another change emerging from the Jan. 4 shooting.

The report had been ordered as part of a follow-up to a June 26 memo barring information about the officer who shot Arif Sayed Faisal to be released to the public until an inquest into the officer’s conduct is complete. Faisal, a 20-year-old University of Massachusetts at Boston student, was suffering a mental health crisis and holding a large knife to self-harm. He was shot when he moved toward the officers, according to law enforcement officials.

Timeline to share information

In the event of a future officer-involved fatality, PERF recommends the department implement a consistent timeline to share investigative information and set clear expectations of what information the public will and will not receive.

PERF recommends that the public should know preliminary facts about an incident within 24 to 36 hours, as well as preliminary information about officers involved and an estimated time frame for the release of further information. It also recommended that CPD conduct a threat assessment for the safety of the officer and release the name within two to five days of the incident if there is no credible threat.

When this policy is implemented, Cambridge police look to be a trailblazer in Massachusetts in developing a protocol for dealing with officer-involved fatalities. “We do need to move forward with urgency and yet we will be building new ground,” councillor Patty Nolan said. “This is a place where our state is behind the rest of the country.”

“As we continue to mourn this young man and we continue to seek ways to ensure that we can heal as a community … the police department doesn’t stand alone on this,” councillor E. Denise Simmons said. “It may be the police department that we’re looking at, but it’s the entire city that’s under the microscope.”