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Activists seek answers in Camb. cop shooting

Police have yet to release details on incident that left man dead

Isaiah Thompson
Activists seek answers in Camb. cop shooting
Fatema Ahmad of the Muslim Justice League addresses demonstrators during a rally outside Somerville High School where Sayed Faisal was once a student. PHOTO: Courtesy Muslim Justice League

Weeks after the fatal shooting by Cambridge police on Jan. 4 of Sayed Arif Faisal, a 20-year-old Cambridge student and member of the city’s Bangladeshi immigrant community, city residents, elected officials, and community activists continue to grapple with myriad questions around Faisal’s death.

On Saturday, mourners held a vigil for Faisal in Somerville, where he attended high school, next to a mural depicting the young man paddling a kayak.

Cambridge officials have held two public hearings on the incident, the most recent by Cambridge City Council members over the past two weeks, in which Council members have tried, with limited success, to understand the series of events, policies and procedures that ended in Faisal’s death.

Complicating the situation is a paucity of facts. Citing an ongoing investigation by Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, the Cambridge Police Department (CPD) has declined to make public or provide to local officials many significant details of the events of Jan. 4 — including any police reports from the incident, the name of the officer involved, the number of fatal shots fired or — perhaps most critically — an account of the exact chain of events that led to the use of lethal force by one Cambridge officer that left Faisal dead.

According to statements from the Middlesex DA’s Office and CPD, the incident began with a 911 call after Faisal allegedly jumped out of a window in the Cambridgeport neighborhood. Faisal was allegedly holding a double-edged knife and attempting to harm himself with it.

Police arrived on the scene. Faisal fled. A pursuit ensued, with police following Faisal, apparently to a residential yard where, according to police, Faisal refused to drop the knife. Police then discharged a “sponge grenade” at Faisal. What exactly happened next is unclear, but prompted one officer to fire. Faisal was shot in the torso and pronounced dead at Massachusetts General Hospital.

In an hours-long special hearing last week, Cambridge City Council members heard from members of the public. Most, though not all, expressed outrage over Faisal’s death and demanded action, from calls for police reforms to calls to defund the CPD and/or establish alternative response models, especially for emergency calls involving people experiencing mental health crises.

Council members also questioned CPD Commissioner Christine Elow and City Manager Yi-An Huang over police policies and procedures, especially those employed in or relevant to the incident involving Faisal.

Many of those questions, including by Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, revolved around the nature of the police response, given what all parties appear to agree was a situation involving someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

Cameron Deane, a veteran officer and a national instructor of a police training program for first responding officers, said Cambridge police officers are trained to approach such situations cautiously and, when possible, to pursue de-escalation.

“We want our officers to not rush into situations,” said Deane. “If we are able to at least reasonably preserve the safety to the general public we may not engage with them at all, we may call an ambulance.”

Cambridge Police Commissioner Elow emphasized that responding officers tried, repeatedly, to engage with Faisal over the course of the incident.

But, she said, “We were never able to engage Faisal. We never were able to get him to stop and to engage with us. And that is when we moved from, ‘Okay, let’s try to slow it down and see if we can engage and drop the weapon’ [to] ‘You know, he’s no longer just a risk to himself. He’s now a risk to the community.”

Elow repeatedly emphasized Faisal’s possession of the knife as pivotal in the officers’ decisions.

“When he was running away with that large knife … the next move for us was to try to contain what we felt was an ongoing threat to the community, which was what we were able to do in the yard.”

Such answers did not satisfy all members of the Council.

“What I’m hearing is that when they have a double-edged blade, even if they’re running away and still not letting it go,” police in such a situation could potentially react without use of force, noted Councilor Burhan Azeem, “And if they’re having a mental health crisis [police] will try to stabilize the situation and we have protocols for this.”

But, Azeem noted, “From what we know so far is that didn’t happen in this case.”

Councilor Quinton Zondervan questioned the idea that armed police officers should have been present at all in such a situation.

“Having that first responder be someone with a gun is not necessary … the people who are engaging directly with the person who is in crisis, why do they need to have a gun?” asked Zondervan. “What that tells us is the problem is not the training, the problem is the gun.”

Such remarks drew pushback from Elow, who downplayed the idea that unarmed or non-police responders, such as social workers or other trained professionals, should have been sent in ahead of armed police.

“There is not a co-responder model in this country that would send a social worker or an alternative response in with an armed person in crisis,” Elow said testily. 

Councilor Marc McGovern, meanwhile, is calling for an independent investigation, outside of and apart from any process within the Middlesex District Attorney’s office, into the events leading to Faisal’s death.

“The only thing the DA [will investigate] is, was the shooting justified or not, and if the shooting was not justified, are there going to be criminal charges?” he said. “We know they’re not going into ‘How did we handle the situation from the time the call came in?’, ‘Did we follow all of our protocols?’, ‘What did we do and what could we have done better?’ … The DA is not going to look at that.”

Council members also peppered City Manager Huang with questions about why the city has not moved forward with intentions, expressed in a vote by Council members two years ago, to establish an alternative crisis response program — one that would not necessarily involve police at all — with Cambridge Heart, a nonprofit organization which trains its own crisis intervention teams.   

Huang, who began his first term as city manager just this year, answered, “We continue to be in conversation … there has been a lot of engagement,” but acknowledged that it was “unfortunate” the city has not made more progress in establishing such a program. 

Meanwhile, Huang said, the Faisal incident has caused him to reflect on whether such programs should be part of the city’s public safety apparatus — which includes police — or separate from it.

“There is a real conversation about the alternative response being further away from the police,” Huang said.

Activists, meanwhile, expressed disdain for the response from city officials — and for any proposed steps, including the adoption of body cameras, that are focused on maintaining the status quo when it comes to armed police response.

“[Police officials] were all clear they wouldn’t send the city’s alternative response for this” even had the program been in place, said Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Boston-based Muslim Justice League.

“No matter what, they have read this situation as, even though the person is hurting himself, that is ‘violent’ and can only have a police response. So that is where we really want to push people beyond that.”

Cambridge City Council members are set to reconvene the special meeting regarding Faisal’s death this week. But expectations for further details and answers in the young man’s death are low: Cambridge police have so far held the line on releasing new details until the Middlesex DA has completed an investigation. Such an investigation, judging by past examples, could take months.

Meanwhile, the area’s Bangladeshi community is in mourning — and living with new fear, says Pervin Chowdhury, president of the Bangladeshi Association of New England.

“It’s devastating, because they don’t feel safe anymore,” Chowdhury said, referring to area Bangladeshi residents. “It’s so scary for all of us.”

The group has joined activists in calling for further investigation and for the release of the name of the officer who shot Faisal.

“We want justice for Faisal,” said Chowdhury. “What was the point of shooting him? Why shoot him in the chest? … This shouldn’t be happening anymore.”

Cambridge Police, Sayed Faisal