Cambridge is one of the most liberal cities in America. Yet despite its ultraprogressive reputation, the police force does not use body cameras — a shocking fact that came to light after Sayed Faisal was shot to death by a Cambridge police officer on Jan. 4.
Cambridge officials should act quickly and decisively to change that. While police body cameras like those worn by Boston police do not necessarily stop such incidents from happening, they can provide crucial evidence as to how and why they unfold — evidence that is lacking in Faisal’s case.
The 20-year-old Cambridge resident and student at the University of Massachusetts Boston was shot and killed by an officer after police responded to a 911 call reporting that a man had jumped out of an apartment window with a knife and was cutting himself. According to police, Faisal ultimately began approaching officers with a knife, and after a “less-than-lethal” sponge grenade failed to stop him, an officer fired his gun. Faisal, an immigrant and only child, was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he died. His death has outraged many residents, especially those in the Bangladeshi community.
The story of why Cambridge police don’t currently use body cameras is a long and winding tale, filled with excuses and finger-pointing. Cambridge City Councilor Marc McGovern, who describes himself as a body camera advocate, told the editorial board that back in 2020 “most of us” on the council agreed that getting them was a good idea. However, no specific policy order to do so was ever voted upon. Instead, “we indicated we wanted it done,” said McGovern. “We were told, this is going to happen, the police union is OK with it, the police commissioner is OK with it, the city manager is OK with it. [The city manager] will put out an [request for proposals] to find a company that would supply them.” Since Cambridge operates under a form of government that gives the city manager the sole power to allocate all funding, it was up to the city manager at the time to follow through on this, said McGovern. But that never happened. “Why? I think it was something that fell off the to-do list,” he said.
Privacy concerns may also be a reason for the delay. In 2018, the council passed a Surveillance Technology Ordinance, which requires the police to get permission from the City Council before buying or using equipment like body cameras. Since then, some council members have expressed uneasiness about their use.
Asked about the Police Department’s stance on body cameras, Jeremy Warnick, the department’s director of communications and media relations, passed along a video clip that shows Police Commissioner Christine Elow telling members of the city’s finance committee in 2022 that body cameras are something she would like to implement in the department. Of course, saying that and pushing for it to happen are two different things.
As of last September, Cambridge hired a new city manager, Yi-An Huang, and McGovern said “we expect to see money for body cameras” in the upcoming budget. But whether that happens and whether it results in Cambridge police using body cameras anytime soon seems more like a maybe. At the same time McGovern said he expected an allocation for body cameras, he also mentioned the surveillance ordinance, questioned whether there might be collective bargaining issues with the police union, and warned that “It’s going to take some time.” Yet, state Representative Marjorie Decker of Cambridge said all those details were previously worked out and all that’s needed now is for the police commissioner “to come forward and make a request. It’s time to move forward. Just get it done,” said Decker.
Time is something that was snatched from Faisal, whose fatal shooting by a Cambridge police officer was the first in 20 years. The police officer who shot him has been placed on leave and the shooting is under investigation by Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan. At a recent community meeting called to address the matter, attendees were frustrated by the lack of answers from Cambridge officials about how this tragedy happened. The incident also raises questions about how police deal with encounters that involve people who are in distress.
The lack of body cameras makes it harder to answer all questions about the shooting. Without them, “I don’t think we’ll get the clear answers people are hoping for,” said McGovern, the council member, who also says he believes body cameras represent a commitment to “transparency and accountability.”
Indeed. Cambridge should stop the excuses and do what it takes to demonstrate that commitment by implementing the use of body cameras.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.