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The Cambridge Safety Department’s unarmed emergency response team will launch in March after months of training, Department Director Liz M. Speakman said at a Cambridge City Council meeting Monday evening.
The Community Assistant Response and Engagement team, hired in September, will provide a non-police alternative emergency safety response and respond to cases of behavioral and mental health.
“We understand the urgency that the community has communicated that there needs to be an unarmed civilian response to 911 calls for mental health crisis,” Speakman said. “We are working night and day to make sure that happens.”
The priority of the team will be responding to 911 calls that “do not involve violence, physical safety, or urgent medical issues and do not require an enforcement approach,” according to Speakman.
City Manager Yi-An Huang ’05 said that the launch provides an “exciting opportunity” to reexamine the design of Cambridge’s public safety response and lower the “burden” the city has placed on the police department.
“A lot of the tasks we’ve given them are things that civilians could handle,” he said. Huang added that the response team will “free people up for our officers to be engaged in things that we really need them for.”
The hirings come after the killing of 20-year old Sayed Faisal, who was shot by a Cambridge Police officer last January. Officers responded to a 911 call reporting that Faisal was harming himself and, following a chase through Cambridge, an officer shot Faisal after he moved towards officers with a knife. Faisal’s death sparked months of protests and a renewed conversation on policing in Cambridge.
City Councilor Patty M. Nolan ’80 said that she hopes the response team will work alongside the Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team — an independent public safety alternative struggling to obtain a contract with the city.
“The vision, for me, is having a city department and a contracted nonprofit, recognizing there are some people for whom they will only want to go to a city department and for others, they may feel uncomfortable,” Nolan said.
Huang said that while it is “incredibly important” for the city to work with nonprofits, the contract negotiations with HEART have been “challenging.” He specifically cited HEART’s delay in sending the city a formal proposal as a reason for stalled contract negotiations.
“I would love to see them demonstrate more operational progress — setting up a phone line, thinking through how many interactions, how many responses they’re actually conducting within the community,” he said. “We can continue discussions about additional operational funding or deeper partnership in the future.”
HEART Co-Director Corinne Espinoza said in an interview last week that the organization is “unclear” on why contract negotiations haven’t progressed.
“Honestly, we’re a little baffled because publicly the city always says that it wants to fund us — but then they don’t fund us,” Espinoza said.
Huang also addressed the firing of three of the eight original members of the CARE team, which was first reported by the Cambridge Day late last month. The three individuals were let go after four months of training, leaving five responders to operationalize the department’s original plans.
“Sometimes, it’s just not a good fit, Huang said. “Sometimes that determination just has to be made — we have to set up our teams for success and to believe that we’ve got the right people in each of these roles.”
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