Friday, July 12, 2024

Police at the scene of the Jan. 4, 2023, shooting of Arif Sayed Faisal in Cambridgeport. (Photo: Brandon Constant)

When a Cambridge police officer killed Arif Sayed Faisal on Jan. 4, 2023, in what some regarded as a “suicide by cop,” most officers had not received the latest training on the possibility because lessons had been disrupted by the Covid pandemic.

The curriculum missed by officers – including officer Liam McMahon, who shot Faisal – included several elements “directly relevant to this incident,” says a report commissioned by the city as an outside assessment to examine police department policies and practices as well as Faisal’s shooting.

The report by the Police Executive Research Foundation, a widely respected organization that developed the training programs that Cambridge and many other law enforcement agencies use and which evaluates departments at their request, is being presented to the City Council on Monday. It praises the Cambridge department for its devotion to deescalation and training and its “progressive” attitude and also recommends changes ranging from language modifications to finding an adequate physical space for officers to train.

At Monday’s council meeting, the report was transferred quickly to the council’s Public Safety Committee, which will hold a hearing to discuss its findings at 3 p.m. April 2, said councillor Ayesha Wilson, co-chair of the committee.

Responding to questions from Cambridge Day on Sunday after the report was posted on the city’s open meetings website, City Manager Yi-An Huang and police commissioner Christine Elow issued a press release saying some recommendations in the report are already being implemented. The statement recounted the report’s positive findings: for example, that seeing “fatal, officer-involved incidents happen so rarely – once in more than 20 years – in a city the size of Cambridge is a testament to the training and protocols already in place at the Cambridge Police Department.”

“Moving forward, the department will thoroughly review all PERF’s recommendations and work with its officers, the city manager, City Council, partners and community to determine what measures would be the most effective,” the press release said. It quoted Elow as saying: “Even if we did everything right, we never want to lose a life. That is never the outcome that we want when we respond to a call for a person who is in crisis.” 

The press release also included a link to a video of Elow’s response.

Suicide-by-cop training module

McMahon shot Faisal, 20, after the young man had led pursuing officers down streets and railroad tracks in Cambridgeport while cutting his wrist and neck with a large knife. Trapped with McMahon and other officers in a Chestnut Street backyard, Faisal walked toward McMahon, still holding the knife against his neck. McMahon fired when Faisal was within 12 feet, telling investigators later he feared for his life. McMahon also said he believed Faisal was bent on committing suicide by getting a police officer to kill him, known as suicide by cop.

The elements in the suicide-by-cop training module that the report identified as relevant to Faisal’s death included:

  • Don’t point a gun at a suicidal person who wants police to kill him because that “may create more fear and anxiety and cause the person to choose an option that forces your hand (e.g., charging at you).” McMahon pointed his gun at Faisal.
  • “Yelling commands is likely to exacerbate, not help the situation.” These “subjects are in a poor frame of mind already.” McMahon told police investigators he yelled at Faisal repeatedly to drop the large knife he was holding against his neck and yelled, “Don’t make me do it.”
  • Police should have a backup plan if an effort to use “less than lethal” force fails. A shot from the Cambridge Police Department’s “less than lethal” sponge-tipped projectile hit Faisal but didn’t affect him. Officers at the scene had no alternative weapon.

Arif Sayed Faisal

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

Faisal lived with his parents and his grandmother in an affordable-housing apartment building in Cambridgeport. He had moved to the United States with his family from Bangladesh in 2015, graduated from Somerville High School and had finished his first year at the University of Massachusetts at Boston studying computer science, but was not enrolled when he was killed.

Though friends and his father denied seeing any signs of mental illness in Faisal in public statements, witnesses who talked to State Police investigators described troubling incidents such as telling his parents a few days before he died that the world was about to end. His death sparked large and repeated protests that forced the City Council to move to online-only sessions when protesters disrupted meetings. Demonstrators accused police and city officials of bias against Muslims and demanded that police identify the officer who shot Faisal; the city eventually said it will do so in the future, after the foundation said there was no legal reason to keep it secret. By that time, however, the judge conducting an inquest into Faisal’s death had barred officials from revealing information until the inquest concluded.

Training space

The judge last October cleared McMahon of any crime and found he acted reasonably. And the foundation report, despite pointing to relevant parts of the suicide-by-cop training module that officers missed, said: “We cannot speculate about whether the fatal outcome might have been different if CPD had received the [suicide-by-cop] training before this incident.”

“We recognize and commend that officers, including officer McMahon, spent considerable time and covered much geographic distance trying to engage with Mr. Faisal before the fatal shooting,” the report said. “Having the training provided in the module could have provided the officer with skills that may have helped him defuse the situation.”

Cambridge police started training officers in the updated PERF program, including the suicide-by-cop module, last October, the report said. An instructor from the consultants who observed the training said it met all of the foundation’s standards but added that “his biggest concern was that the space needed to effectively run scenarios was not available.”

That referred to another, surprising finding in the report: Cambridge police do not have an adequate training space. The department does possess a “small training room” with a video simulator but has been using “abandoned buildings in Cambridge,” including one that the department lost because it was recently condemned, the report said.

The report recommended that the police department work with the city to find and establish a “dedicated and reliable training space.” The training program developed by the foundation – which Cambridge police use – “depends on scenario-based instruction and refreshers,” which demands “a proper space within which to plan and execute a variety of settings and situations,” the report said.

Co-responding and nonlethal options

Other recommendations included:

Police should consider answering some mental health calls with a “co-response” model, in which a police officer and a mental health clinician respond together. Cambridge police had ruled out co-response as recently as last fall, saying the department would continue its policy of not sending its social workers to calls with officers.

But the report said officials told foundation staff in January it was trying out co-response. The press release Sunday responding to the report said the department is “working to implement a co-response pilot program that would place a clinician in a CPD cruiser with a police officer to respond to mental health calls.” The statement gave no details.

The department should evaluate additional nonlethal options to avoid deadly force, including equipping every officer with longer-range pepper spray that is now available only to the special response team and outfitting all officers with shields. Police should also assess more controversial methods such as Tasers and pepper balls, but only after establishing a group to consider those alternatives that includes community members and “other stakeholders” such as medical workers as well as police and city officials.

Police should streamline the procedure for allowing officers to obtain outside training. The process is now so cumbersome that an officer may not get permission until after a course has ended, the report said.

Abandoning the “21-foot rule”

The department should make sure trainers don’t teach officers to use what McMahon and other officers referred to as “the 21-foot rule”: a measure that claims that people with knives or other “edged weapons” can attack officers faster than can be escaped if the person comes closer than 21 feet.

The foundation said the “rule” is outmoded, discredited and is not in its training materials; McMahon and other officers would have heard that when they were first trained under the foundation’s program in 2019. “And yet, [McMahon] referenced it three times during his interview [with State Police investigators] and related it back to his training,” the report said.

The department “should ensure that its instructors understand that the 21-foot rule is an outdated training principle that should not be taught to officers. Instead, CPD instructors should frame issues of distance in terms of the Reactionary Gap,” the report said. The “Reactionary Gap” involves a subject’s “means, intent and opportunity” instead of a specific distance, the consultants said.