Friday, July 12, 2024

A protest held Jan. 9 at Cambridge City Hall for Arif Sayed Faisal, who was shot five days earlier. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The fatal shooting of Arif Sayed Faisal on Jan. 4 was justified and does not constitute a criminal act, according to the results of a judge’s inquest released Thursday.

With the finding comes the name of the Cambridge police officer who fired the shots, a demand by protesters since the shooting, but one that was delayed first by an informal policy of city police officials and then by rule of the inquest itself.

Inquest materials are now online for examination by the public here.

The officer involved was identified as Liam McMahon. Police officials have called him a seven-year veteran of the force with no complaints on his record. He was put on paid leave after the shooting.

Faisal, 20, came to the United States with his family in 2015 from Bangladesh and graduated from Somerville High School, friends said. He attended the University of Massachusetts, Boston, from fall 2020 to spring 2022 and was studying computer engineering, a university official said. He worked at a CVS.

The killing took place by his Cambridgeport home during a mental health crisis. Police have said all along that Faisal shook off a nonlethal round – a spongelike projectile described as “akin to being hit by a 100 mph fastball” – and was shot when he moved toward police. The inquest report adds more information.

In the findings of Judge John Coffey from a May 22-25 inquest that heard sworn testimony from 29 witnesses, including citizens who saw part of the commotion received 53 exhibits into evidence and conducted an in-person viewing of the scene:

“Officer McMahon’s decision to fire his weapon was objectively reasonable” within the meaning of a 1989 court decision known as Graham v. Connor. “Officers had been pursuing Faisal through Cambridge streets for approximately 10 minutes, during which time Faisal was cutting himself with a knife with a footlong blade. Faisal never responded to the officers’ commands to stop and drop the knife, and Faisal refused to engage with any of the officers’ attempts to communicate with him. Faisal was not subdued or seemingly affected by the less-lethal shot, and instead turned and walked directly toward Officer McMahon while holding the knife out toward him.

“At the moment that Officer McMahon fired his weapon, a reasonable law enforcement officer in the same position would reasonably believe that he, along with his fellow officers and others, were in imminent danger of being seriously injured or killed,” according to Coffey’s inquest report.

Six shots fired

The shooting took place after a final call from the officer to Faisal: “Drop the knife, don’t make me do this.”

McMahon fired six times. “Faisal did not fall until the last shot struck him,” the report says.

The inquest report notes that shell casings, a Quran and Faisal’s knife were recovered from the scene of the shooting.

Though the inquest was complete long ago, Coffey’s report wasn’t filed until Sept. 15. “It typically does take them time to review everything and issue findings,” said Meghan Kelly, a spokesperson for Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan.

Ryan accepted the findings of the court and filed a certificate in Superior Court to close the matter, and that filing starts the clock on a mandatory 10-day freeze on the release of information called an impoundment that added delay, Kelly said.

District Attorney Ryan stated, “My condolences have been and remain with the family of Sayed Arif Faisal and those who continue to feel the profound pain of his passing.”

Protester reaction

The officials’ report left Party of Socialism and Liberation members “disappointed, but not surprised.”

“We’re definitely still upset about it, we’re definitely still demanding that the officer be fired, because that’s the least the city of Cambridge could do,” Matthew Kennedy, an organizer with PSL, said in an interview. “We are going to continue to protest because we don’t accept the result and we know that the killing was wrongful.”

Activists from the party, the Bangladesh Association of New England and the Boston South Asian Coalition have organized multiple rallies, protests and meetings over the course of the 10-month investigation. Alongside releasing the officer’s name, PSL had demanded an unredacted police incident report, the firing of all involved officers immediately and prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.

“As we’ve seen in prior cases, the probability of actually leading to a finding of misconduct was very low,” said Rafeya Raquib, another party member. “Especially given the fact that the investigation itself was done by the police for a [case] of police brutality.”

A joint statement from the three organizations was released Friday:

Officer Liam McMahon of Cambridge Police murdered a young Bangladeshi student, Arif Sayed Faisal, in broad daylight and the Judicial Inquest investigating the incident has declared that the killing was justified. Judge Coffey’s rationale was that a “reasonable law enforcement officer” in the same position would have done the same thing. It is a moral outrage that our current system and status quo condones the killing of students suffering from mental health crises. Faisal needed medical attention, empathy, and compassion, not bullets.

Judge Coffey’s statements depict a false narrative that Faisal was so dangerous that McMahon and other officers could take no other action than gun him down. They put the onus on Faisal to have engaged with the police even though he was suffering a mental health crisis. The statement argues that escalation was necessary because “Faisal never responded to the officers’ commands to stop and drop the knife, and [because] Faisal refused to engage with any of the officers’ attempts to communicate with him.” These statements and expectations are staggering when we consider that Faisal was under a state of panic and acute mental distress.

Even though we are angered and betrayed by this outcome, it does not come as a surprise. In fact, 98% of fatal police shootings do not even result in a prosecution and even fewer result in a conviction. Police officers, judges, and DAs are all working together on the same side of an unjust system that targets and tramples over black and brown working class people. Although we’ve long been aware of this bias, we are no less outraged by this turn of events. We are calling on the city of Cambridge to fire officer McMahon. This is the bare minimum for any city that has a real commitment to end racist policing. The city of Cambridge has refused to listen to popular demand to fire the officer for 10 months because they are just as familiar with how the system works and the likelihood of this decision. The stalling tactic is nothing more than an attempt to absolve themselves of their responsibility to the community.

However there’s still an opportunity to do the right thing. We still demand that police officer Liam McMahon be fired from the Cambridge Police Department for the murder of Arif Sayed Faisal. Until that happens, our voices will be united in continuing to demand justice and accountability, and to ensure that no more members of our community fall victim to police brutality.

“I’d really like to see the Cambridge City Council and the city manager step up to the demands of their constituents to actually deliver some semblance of accountability and justice on this and make sure that all of our public servants are actually serving us,” said Suhail Purkar, a party member, in an interview.

More due from police

Cambridge Police Department officer Liam McMahon. (Photo: Cambridge Police Department via Instagram)

This doesn’t end review of this incident. Ryan’s office has forwarded the report to Cambridge police for its own examination and whatever action it “may deem appropriate,” according to a Thursday press release from Kelly. Cambridge police commissioner Christine Elow has said her department is undertaking an independent review with consultants from the Police Executive Research Forum. The group has already issued findings that the department could have “legally and ethically” named the officer, and has contributed to a policy setting that standard for any future incidents.

McMahon joined the Cambridge Police Department in 2015 – a family tradition that follows in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, great-uncle and second cousin, according to information from the department posted in 2019 after a brother, Devin, joined as an officer. McMahon grew up outside Inman Square, went to the Longfellow School and Cambridge Ridge and Latin School and most often patrolled East Cambridge and Cambridgeport, police said.

Elow said her department continue to mourn the loss of Faisal while remaining committed to learning from the organization. In addition to a policy that will name officers in use-of-force incidents, the killing moved the city forward on equipping officers with body-worn cameras that will record interactions.

The Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association noted Friday that its members “deliver on-the-scene crisis intervention and emergency counseling to more than 1,000 people in mental health crisis a year, administer well over 50 life-saving doses of Narcan to persons in drug-induced cardiac arrest and provide compassionate assistance and first-responder care to hundreds of citizens experiencing a variety of medical emergencies; and perform many other duties” that show care, commitment and dedication.

“We understand, however, that this does not erase the pain and loss being felt by Mr. Faisal’s family, nor the emotional trauma that our brother-officer and others who responded that day experienced. The hearts of all CPPOA members are with each of these people who are coping with this tragedy on very personal terms,” the association said.

More official reaction

City Manager Yi-An Huang underlined to the community on Friday that he believes “deeply” in Elow and her team, though “It has been a heavy 10 months for our city as we have wrestled with this tragedy and collectively grieved over a life cut short. My heart continues to break for Faisal’s family, friends, and so many impacted people in our community.”

In addition to the coming cameras and policy, he noted the arrival of an online procedural justice dashboard that kept watch over police actions and expectations for new less-lethal methods to use in law enforcement, as well as the funding of an unarmed Community Safety Department to start work in March.

The finding is a “challenge for us as a community to understand split-second decisions that can have tragic outcomes,” Huang said. “Yet this is not a moment of justification, but rather questioning and continued learning. There are many who are still left raw and hurting. And there is more work to do. How we respond to people in mental health distress who are wielding a dangerous weapon needs to improve.”

“There are too many examples of encounters gone wrong and grieving families – not just in Cambridge but throughout our country. We need and are committed to doing more to keep everyone in our community safe, while ensuring accountability and increased transparency,” Huang said in a press release.

Few police shootings

Elow added that there was “no doubt that this is a tragedy for our entire community. My heart goes out to Faisal’s family and everyone who has been impacted,” said Elow, while noting how the report outlines how officers can face complex and dangerous situations. “No officer ever wants to be put in the position where they have to use fatal force, and if it happens it stays with each of us forever. This tragedy has impacted our entire department.

Cambridge has had little reason to become familiar with shooting investigations. Its police have discharged their weapons in the direction of a human only five times since 1934, according to city councillor Quinton Zondervan and Elow: nonfatal shootings in 1934 and 1937; Daniel Furtado, shot and killed in 2002 when he allegedly ran at police with a hatchet while emotionally disturbed; a March 2015 incident in which police and a burglar exchanged one shot each, hitting nothing, but the man was later found dead of suicide; and Faisal on Jan. 4.

Police put that in even deeper context in January, saying there had been more than 2 million calls for service since 2004, including just over 124,000 calls in 2022 – “more than any other year,” Elow said. Force was used in 66 of those calls last year, or 0.053 percent, with most of those “officers using their hands to gain control of a situation.” The year also saw more mental health reports than in any other year going back to 2015, when police started keeping track. “It nearly doubled,” Elow said.

This post was updated Oct. 6, 2023, to add a statement from community groups angered by the inquest finding, City Manager Yi-An Huang and The Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association.