As Cambridge voters head to the polls Tuesday, policing and public safety remain top of mind for voters and candidates alike.
Cambridge politics have been dominated by the issue of public safety ever since Cambridge police shot and killed 20-year-old Sayed Faisal in January.
Faisal’s death coincided with multiple high-profile police killings across the country, sparking outcry from activists, police abolitionists, cultural and religious organizations, and residents.
Council candidates remain split on the issues of policing and safety — and what forms they should take.
On Jan. 4, a 911 caller reported Faisal, a Bangladeshi American college student and Cambridge resident, harming himself with a knife and broken glass. When police arrived, Faisal fled, prompting a foot chase through Cambridgeport after which he was cornered by multiple officers in a residential backyard.
Faisal then moved toward CPD officer Liam McMahon — an eight-year veteran of the department — while aiming his knife, and when a nonlethal sponge round fired by police failed to stop him, McMahon shot and killed him.
Last month, District Attorney Marian T. Ryan released the full findings of the investigation in an inquest report. The Massachusetts District Court Judge overseeing the case, John F. Coffey, concluded McMahon’s actions were “objectively reasonable” and that he will not face prosecution.
The city has since enacted policing and public safety reforms, such as creating a procedural justice dashboard, increasing staffing for the city-sponsored Community Safety Department, and exploring the use of body cameras — a practice absent among Cambridge officers, in contrast to the neighboring cities of Boston and Somerville.
In an October statement issued after the inquest report’s release, City Manager Yi-An Huang ’05 wrote that Cambridge will continue to work with the Police Executive Research Forum, a policing think tank led by police chiefs nationwide that assessed CPD’s practices and publicly disclosed its findings.
The city has also expanded funding for the Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team — a non-police alternative to emergency response in Cambridge also known as HEART.
In March, all incumbent City Councilors voted to fund HEART except for E. Denise Simmons, who voted present, and Paul F. Toner, who opposed the measure. The measure allocated funds from the American Plan Act to HEART with the eventual goal of transferring certain 911 calls to the organization.
Simmons and Toner, who are both running for re-election, do not mention HEART or police alternatives in their public platforms.
The other four incumbents who are running — Burhan Azeem, Marc C. McGovern, Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80, and Sumbul Siddiqui — all voted for the measure to fund HEART in March. Azeem, McGovern, and Nolan all supported HEART in their online platforms.
In 2022, the Cambridge City Council unanimously voted to fund the Cambridge Community Safety Department, which is a non-police public safety alternative that works within the existing emergency response system.
Candidates Ayah Al-Zubi ’23 and Dan Totten both spoke at a rally following the release of the inquest report into Faisal’s killing. At the rally, Totten, a former aide to Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan, took aim at the size of Cambridge’s police budget.
“Instead of learning from what happened in January, City Manager Huang chose to double down on the failed institution of policing,” Totten said.
Al-Zubi, Totten, mayoral aide Adrienne Klein, and Federico Muchnik have all expressed support for expanding funding to HEART.
In an interview, Al-Zubi said that it is important to “build empathy for our communities.”
“This is an issue that is so intersectional with not only policing, but also mental health, healthcare access, stigmatization of mental health,” she said.
Policing has remained a contentious issue on the campaign trail. At a September candidate forum hosted by Harvard’s graduate student union, candidate Cathie Zusy expressed support for CPD in light of Faisal’s killing.
“I do think if he had stayed in his house, it would have been a private issue,” she said. “I think it was appropriate for the police to respond.”
Zusy also lauded the reputation of CPD, which she said does “pretty good work.”
This characterization drew pushback from McGovern.
“It doesn’t matter to his family that the Cambridge Police Department is nationally known,” he said. “They lost their son, and no parent should ever have to bury a son.”
Candidate Carrie E. Pasquarello has called for increasing public safety by focusing on reducing violent crime and fentanyl overdoses. She has called for expanding CPD’s special investigation unit and cybercrime training and said that the current Council is not “really focusing on how we can reduce the violent crime in our community.”
Cambridge HEART Co-Director Corinne Espinoza said in an interview that while most of the current city councilors have expressed support for HEART, the upcoming elections may shape the organization’s future.
“A new City Council — whether it’s mostly the same folks or additional new folks — could help HEART by holding the city manager to the earlier policy orders,” Espinoza said, referring to the March policy order.
Liz M. Speakman, the director of the Community Safety Department, said in an interview that public safety alternatives are a necessity in Cambridge.
“The city has heard the feedback that having some kind of alternative response, particularly to mental health calls, to folks that are unhoused, that having unarmed civilians going on these 911 calls is a real need in the community,” Speakman said.
She added every elected government official should champion a sense of transparency, flexibility, and “a willingness to reflect on, ‘Is this really working?’”
While not endorsing any specific candidate, Espinoza said candidates should clearly understand the differences between what they call “the two Cambridges” — between the affluent and abundantly resourced part of the city, such as the biotech industry, and the population struggling to meet basic needs.
“A city councilor has to remember that they’re the councilor to everyone in Cambridge, not just the people who are doing okay,” Espinoza said.
A City Councilor “needs to be principled” and “go to places where people are not feeling well served by the city and find out why and what they need,” they added.
As for Speakman, she is optimistic that a new Council will be more sympathetic to the call for public safety alternatives.
“Come January, when there’s a new Council seated, we’ll have to see what that means for us,” Speakman said. “I feel very confident and excited that whatever new Councilors get voted on — we’ll be able to bring them on the team.”
Corrections: November 3, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Liz M. Speakman is the interim director of the Community Safety Department. In fact, she is the director.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that CPD officer Liam McMahon fired a nonlethal sponge round at Sayed Faisal. In fact, the nonlethal round was fired by another officer.