Thursday, July 18, 2024

Arif Sayed Faisal in a family photo included in materials from an inquest into his Jan. 4, 2023, death.

The police officer who shot Arif Sayed Faisal fatally a year ago told investigators he believed the 20-year-old man intended to commit “suicide by cop” in the backyard of a Chestnut Street home where he was cornered by police on Jan. 4, 2023. Faisal, who had been walking and running through Cambridgeport while holding a large knife to his throat and cutting himself, was “a suicidal individual who, for lack of a better way to put this, I know it doesn’t sound right, but he wants me to do it for him,” officer Liam McMahon said.

McMahon said that after a shot with a sponge-tipped projectile said to travel at up to 100 mph failed to stop the young man – “he laughs and turns around toward me” – Faisal started walking toward McMahon at a faster and faster pace.

The officer backed up, closer and closer to a fence on the side of the yard. “He’s gaining on me, like I said, faster than I could get away, and I know that at some point there is gonna be something behind me that’s gonna stop me from getting any further back,” the officer told State Police investigators. “So I obviously feared for my life, and in order to defend myself and keep myself from getting either seriously injured or, god forbid, killed, I had to defend myself and discharge my firearm.”

Faisal died at Massachusetts General Hospital about an hour and a half after he was shot.

During the chase, McMahon heard Faisal say only two things while he and other officers ordered and begged him repeatedly to drop the knife and offered to get him help: “You cannot help me” and “This is how it’s supposed to go,” the officer said. The second statement, “This is how it’s supposed to go,” is “something that keeps playing in my mind,” McMahon said.

A video from Putnam Green housing in Cambridgeport shows Faisal on Jan. 4, 2023.

The transcript and a video of McMahon’s interview with State Police investigators on Jan. 6, 2023, two days after the shooting, are among the pieces of evidence and other materials from an inquest into Faisal’s death that is posted on the website of Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan. After District Court judge John Coffey found that McMahon did not commit a crime and Ryan declined to charge him Oct. 5, virtually all the information collected in the investigation by law enforcement, as well as the transcripts of the courtroom sessions, has been available to the public. Ryan adopted the unusual inquest and public disclosure policy for all police-involved shootings her office investigates.

The shooting unleashed demonstrations as frequently as daily, including some at City Hall that forced councillors to move out of their usual second-floor meeting site and hold meetings by Zoom from other locations in the building.

Faisal had come to the United States with his family from Bangladesh in 2015, graduated from Somerville High School and had attended the University of Massachusetts at Boston until the fall semester of 2022. The Bangladesh Association of New England had led protests, joined by other organizations, including the Party of Socialism and Liberation and the Council on American Islamic Relations, and classmates from high school and college spoke with them.

Changes in policing

Few if any in city government have talked about the details available on the website. Outgoing city councillor Quinton Zondervan scheduled a meeting of the council’s Public Safety Committee for Dec. 13 to discuss the inquest report but canceled it when he could not get a quorum of the committee. Councillor Marc McGovern, now vice mayor, said later that committee members had told the council clerk they could not attend on the scheduled date.

Meanwhile, a year after Faisal died, the police department is still working on a policy governing police body-worn cameras; officials said in December that cameras could be operating early this year. The outside consultant hired to evaluate the department’s overall policies and procedures, the Police Executive Research Forum, which was to start working after the inquest was completed, has not yet completed the job. 

Findings in inquest

The inquest and associated materials have yielded some surprises.

For one, the person who first saw Faisal sitting on the pavement outside the affordable-housing project where his family lived, at 625 Putnam Ave., and cutting his wrist with a large machete-like knife later identified as a kukri, was a 13-year-old boy who was playing video games with his brother and a friend in an apartment next door to the building where Faisal lived. The players heard Faisal break out through the window of his first-floor apartment, and the 13-year-old looked out from his own window. The brother called 911 and relayed information while the young teen watched. A horrific cellphone video made by the 13-year-old shows Faisal, with a copy of the Quran, hacking at his wrist and tentatively placing the knife blade to his neck.

A police image from video of the Quran that Faisal had with him Jan. 4, 2023.

Though his father and friends said at demonstrations that Faisal had shown no sign of mental illness, another story emerged in interviews. His mother told investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital the day of his death that she “believed that Faisal was anxious, tense and scared of something, possibly death. Two Fridays prior to our meeting, Faisal woke up his parents to tell them to start praying because the world was coming to an end. Faisal kept saying that the last day on Earth was coming, something was about to happen, and everyone was going to die,” a report of the interview said.

An Army recruiter who met with Faisal on Dec. 12, 2022 – Faisal briefly wanted to join the military – said in an interview with police that Faisal “exhibited signs of paranoia behavior” while he was at the recruiting station and called the recruiter a week later to tell him to “make sure the president is okay.” 

A troubling smile

An EMT who helped treat Faisal after he was shot said that before she and her partner carried him on a stretcher to an ambulance, “the victim looked right at me and smiled in a very uncomfortable way that made me look away. It was not normal for someone in that condition to do it.” Officers who had pursued Faisal also said he periodically stopped, turned around and smiled.

McMahon said that when he first saw Faisal near the corner of Chestnut and Waverly streets, “he’s shirtless, covered in blood. He seemed distressed. He seemed very … this isn’t the right way to put it, but he … you know, he was excited. He’s very worked up, I guess. I’m not exactly sure the best way to describe it.”

One of his friends told police that Faisal was very troubled by his parents’ plan to divorce. The couple was still living together when Faisal died, according to police interviews with them. The lawyer for the family at the inquest last spring, Marsha V. Kazarosian, said she was representing only Faisal’s father, who attended the court sessions. His mother was not represented or present at the inquest.

Sifting the testimony

The inquest documents can be conflicting. McMahon’s partner, officer Nicholas Ayoub, testified at an inquest hearing that Faisal was holding his knife “out directly at officer McMahon,” not against his neck, as Faisal walked toward McMahon in the backyard of the Chestnut Street home. In contrast, McMahon told state police investigators that Faisal continued to hold the knife to his neck with one hand.

McMahon said he still felt threatened because Faisal could easily manipulate the knife to a different position. McMahon attended the inquest but did not testify. Coffey wrote in his judge’s decision that Faisal had held the knife out while approaching McMahon.

The owner of the two-family home at 59 Chestnut St., Susan Freireich, told Cambridge officers and Massachusetts State Police and also testified at the inquest that she had seen the shooting from a back window of the second-floor apartment where she lives and she consistently denied seeing anything in Faisal’s hands. No other civilian witnesses said they had seen the moment McMahon shot Faisal, and every police officer said Faisal had held a knife. Police said they found a knife under Faisal’s shoulder after he was shot and one officer kicked it aside out of Faisal’s reach, he said.

Coffey apparently disregarded Freireich’s testimony on the knife; he did not include it in his report.

The aftermath

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

After Faisal was shot, McMahon said he “froze” and another officer rushed over to turn him away from the scene, telling him to breathe deeply. In line with police department protocol to help officers who can be traumatized in a human reaction to inflicting violence, an ambulance took McMahon to Mount Auburn Hospital; there are no details of his treatment.

In the backyard, police officers and then paramedics rushed to treat Faisal, trying to stop his bleeding by putting seals on his chest and wrapping him in a blanket to prevent him from going into shock. Emergency responders and officers said he resisted them, and he was handcuffed before being taken in an ambulance to Massachusetts General Hospital. EMTs said he continued to resist in the ambulance, trying to remove his “rebreather” device.

A report from Dr. Robert Sinyard, an MGH surgeon, said Faisal arrived “in extremis” but did have a pulse; he lost it several times. Doctors opened his chest, massaged his heart and used a defibrillator four times when Faisal’s heart began beating irregularly.

His liver had been severely damaged, and his heart didn’t start beating again after the last two shocks with the defibrillator, the report said. “Given the extent of his wounds (additional gunshot wounds in thigh, neck, arm, etc.) and inability to gain cardiac activity, the decision was made at this time not to proceed any further,” the report said. “A moment of silence was observed for the patient.”