CAMBRIDGE — Since a police officer this month shot and killed a 20-year-old college student, who was allegedly armed with a machete-like knife, the community has reacted with outrage and renewed a call to improve police accountability.
At a special meeting of the City Council on Wednesday, dozens of residents pressed Police Commissioner Christine Elow and other city leaders for more information about the death of Sayed Faisal.
Some who attended the meeting at City Hall, or participated over Zoom, again called on city councilors to decrease the police department’s $73 million budget and redirect the funds toward alternative responses to traditional policing.
“I think that if we wanted police to be effective mental health responders, we would not just have to train them in de-escalation,” said Mason Kortz,a 12-year resident of Cambridge, referring to the method police use to reduce tense situations. “You have to untrain a lot of what they’re already taught about their primary role as law enforcement.”
Wednesday’s meeting focused on discussing the protocols, processes, and training of the Cambridge Police Department amid increasing public calls for transparency throughout the ongoing investigation into Faisal’s death.
Faisal, a student at UMass Boston, was fatally shot by an officer on the evening of Jan. 4 in the Cambridgeport neighborhood. Police responded to a 911 call reporting that a man had jumped out the window of an apartment and was cutting himself with a knife and a piece of broken glass, officials have said.
When officers arrived, they found Faisal behind a building on Sydney Street, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said at a press conference that evening.
Faisal ran for several blocks around the neighborhood before circling back to Chestnut Street where he again encountered officers, Ryan said on Jan. 4.
Ryan said Faisal moved toward the officers with the knife after they asked him to drop the weapon. One officer fired a less-than-lethal sponge round but Faisal allegedly “continued to advance to the officers holding the knife at one point across his body and then holding it in front of him,” at which point an officer fired a gun, striking Faisal, Ryan said.
The officers involved in the shooting have been placed on administrative leave, which is standard procedure when a police officer fires a weapon. The shooting is under investigation, officials said.
Some residents question why the officers have not been publicly identified.
Releasing the names of the officers has been a focus of activists’ demands, which were vocalized at a community meeting last Thursday, and protests organized by the Bangladeshi Association of New England over the last two weeks.
On Wednesday, Elow said withholding the officers’ names is “more of a practice and not a policy.”
“When there are egregious rule violations or potential criminal charges, you’ve seen the names of officers being released,” Elow said. “In this particular case, I understand it’s difficult, right now we are not seeing, preliminarily, any glaring policy violations.”
Councilor Marc McGovern questioned Elow’s explanation.
“It sounded like it was a written policy to not release an officer’s name,” said McGovern. “I got called out for that same policy. You’re saying it’s not a policy that’s voted on.”
Addressing councilors, Elow highlighted the training officers receive in de-escalation and nonviolent tactics and sought to reassure residents that the department is reviewing its practices.
“Our use-of-force policy is continually reviewed to ensure that it exceeds standards and best practices well before other agencies’ proper timelines,” Elow said.
Elow added that after implementing a requirement for police to take de-escalation and communication training called ICAT, Cambridge immediately saw a 22 percent reduction in use-of-force incidents.
But some residents said the department can do better. They called on the Council to divert police funding to the Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team (HEART), a public safety program that trains trauma-informed responders to answer mental health emergency calls.
“As a responder, as a member of this community … however long they actually spent with Faisal and what they deemed ‘de-escalating’ wasn’t enough time,” said Kevin West, a trained crisis responder with Cambridge HEART. “I’ve trained for almost 350 hours in de-escalation methods and whatever their three-day training process is is not enough time to actually de-escalate a person.”
Multiple councilors voiced concern that the collaboration between the city and Cambridge HEART has been slated to happen for months and is taking too long.
City Manager Yi-An Huang reassured councilors and community members that the city will continue to work with Cambridge HEART on a crisis response partnership.
“It is deeply regretful that we have not been able to move more quickly,” Huang said. “I think it continues to be an effort that is a priority and that we really wanted to commit to be able to provide more progress.”