Thursday, July 18, 2024

A publicity image released by Cambridge‘s Community Safety Department in September upon the hiring of eight Community Assistance Response and Engagement team members. The fired members of the team are not pictured.

The city has fired three of the eight members of an unarmed response team just two months before their department is to start answering calls as an alternative to police. The move came after the team had spent four months in training and outreach.

City spokesperson Jeremy Warnick declined to say why the responders were dismissed, saying the city doesn’t discuss personnel matters. He said the three workers were in their “introductory” period and that during that time employees can be let go “if work habits, attitude, attendance or performance do not measure up to standards,” quoting city policy.

The dismissals won’t delay the department’s plan to start responding to calls in March, Liz Speakman, head of the Community Safety Department, said in an interview Monday. “We are still really excited about launching in March. We’ve got an amazing team of responders,” Speakman said.

The remaining five responders will still be split into two groups that will provide coverage outlined in the department’s original plan, Speakman said: Mondays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; and Fridays from 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. The department still plans to answer calls in eight categories ranging from notifying someone of a death or emergency to responding to people behaving abnormally, experiencing anxiety or speaking of suicide.

Last September the department was awaiting approval from state emergency medical system officials to answer certain mental health calls; it has received approval, Speakman said.

Four months of training and outreach

The eight Community Assistance Response and Engagement members working for the department were initially divided into a Team A  to work earlier in a day and a Team B to work a later shift, said a member who lost his job, Fernandes Francois. The three workers fired Jan. 9 were all on Team B.

“For three months, we were in training all day every day from 8 to 5. And the last month, we’ve been doing outreach work” at such places as churches, the Salvation Army and public libraries, Francois said. The “Care” members also appeared at community meetings such as one Dec. 6 that followed incidents of violence – in that case, after a fatal shooting on Thanksgiving.

Asked how the department will schedule the five remaining responders, Speakman said the details are being worked out. “We built in some redundancy because we wanted to provide follow-up” after answering calls, she said. With fewer team members the department “will be focusing more on the response,” Speakman said. The department has a total staff of 10 after the firings.

There is no data breaking down calls by emergency code – the way the department is organizing its response – during specific times, so the department doesn’t know how many calls to expect, Speakman said. The city’s emergency communications center, which gets 911 calls, will decide which to refer to the department.

Wondering about dismissal

Francois said in an interview with Cambridge Day that he suspected he was fired because he had spoken openly with another dismissed team member about forming a union and had told Speakman he would need family leave in March when his child was born. Speakman denied those assertions vigorously, saying she had worked on union campaigns and benefited from family leave when she had her two children. Further, she said, “I would never want to be seen as punitive.”

Francois, who was born in Cambridge, graduated from Boston University with a degree in youth justice and advocacy and has worked as an emergency medical responder.

The city has not identified responders who were fired, even modifying the official Cambridge website to delete their names in the press release sent last September announcing the members of the team.

Mysteries of the Heart

While the Community Safety Department moves toward answering calls in March, the city still has not signed a contract with a citizen-formed and led alternate response organization, the Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team. The City Council has supported a contract with Heart; Speakman and other city officials have said they have not received a viable contract proposal. The organization says it has made proposals and hasn’t been told why they are not acceptable.

The city did award Heart $300,000 in federal pandemic aid money, but the organization’s leaders say that money is temporary and getting city funds would give Heart more permanent support. The organization said last fall that it is answering non-emergency requests for help and planned to establish a phone number by late last year that will enable its responder team to answer emergency calls.