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Cambridge Police Commissioner Christine A. Elow said the January police killing of Sayed Faisal has “shifted” her priorities going forward in her first interview with the Crimson since Faisal’s death.
Elow, the first woman to lead Cambridge’s police force, also laid out the department’s goals including ongoing reforms and proposals for police alternatives in the Thursday interview.
Faisal, a Bangladeshi American college student and Cambridge resident, was fatally shot by CPD on Jan. 4 after officers responded to a 911 report of him harming himself. After a foot chase that ended in a residential backyard, Faisal approached CPD officer Liam McMahon while wielding a knife. When another officer’s non-lethal sponge round failed to stop Faisal, McMahon shot and killed him.
In October, after 10 months of sustained protests by residents and activists, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office released the findings of an inquest into the shooting and announced that McMahon would not be prosecuted.
Massachusetts District Court Judge John F. Coffey determined McMahon’s actions to be “objectively reasonable.”
Elow offered her thoughts on the inquest process and called the situation “complex, challenging, and tragic.”
“I don’t know that I had any expectations with the inquest process, not having gone through anything like this in my 28 years as a police officer,” Elow said.
“This is an incident that’s going to be with our police department forever,” she added. “Nobody ever gets up to go to work and says, ‘I want to use my department-issued firearm today to shoot somebody.’ That’s the last thing any officer ever wants to do.”
Elow also said Faisal’s killing highlights a need to expand CPD training to prevent future fatal shootings.
“What my priority is is how do we really enhance our training,” Elow added. “What tools do we need to add to prevent something like this from happening again?”
Elow provided updates on several ongoing efforts for reform within the department during the interview.
Cambridge officials have worked toward implementing body cameras for CPD officers in the wake of Faisal’s killing. Elow said a pilot body camera program is “imminent.”
“We’re working with the unions, who are not opposed — they are for body cameras — but we have to go through a negotiation process with them,” Elow said.
“We’re moving very aggressively, and I want it as soon as possible,” she added.
Elow also confirmed the department is actively working with the Police Executive Research Forum, a police think tank that was hired to conduct an external review of the department’s practices.
“We’re going to be working with the Police Executive Research Forum on — are there other tools that we can add to our tool belt that will prevent another tragedy like that from happening again,” she said.
In August, the CPD released a procedural justice dashboard, which showed that the department disproportionately arrests Black people.
According to Elow, the department is now analyzing the findings of the dashboard in partnership with the Center for Policing Equity.
“I think getting that real deep analysis is going to help us really pinpoint where some of our issues are, and take more affirmative action to, I would say, make a difference with those numbers,” she said.
Elow also discussed the prospects of two public safety alternatives — the Cambridge Community Safety Department and Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team.
“I recognize as a Black woman that not everybody sees the police as a trusted resource that they can call,” she said. “In a city like Cambridge that has so many resources, to have a resource other than police where somebody who might need some support can call is so important.”
When Elow assumed her position in January 2022, she said she would carry forward the work of former commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. on police demilitarization. On Thursday, Elow said the department has “continued with what he promised.”
Since Bard’s tenure, the department has eliminated the use of camouflage uniforms, and under Elow’s leadership, reduced their inventory of the rifle.
But Elow said that the department still keeps certain weapons for “extreme circumstances,” such as in the case of an active shooter. One item in CPD’s inventory, a $350,000 armored vehicle called the Lenco BearCat, “only comes out when you’re pressing that emergency button.”
“I do think we need to have some capabilities through our weapons to respond to threats,” she said. “So we’re not going to get rid of everything.”
Elow discussed the department’s interactions with Cambridge’s unhoused population, which she called “very consistent.”
“We have an entire unit that’s dedicated to outreach, and what we’re trying to do is make sure that we identify particularly the unhoused that will not go to shelters,” Elow added.
Elow said overall that CPD has faced significant challenges in the past year.
“This has been a very difficult year for our entire community, including our police department,” she said.
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