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Cambridge NAACP President Criticizes Police Department De-Escalation Policies

The president of the Cambridge chapter of the NAACP said the Cambridge Police Department needs to expand its de-escalation policies.
The president of the Cambridge chapter of the NAACP said the Cambridge Police Department needs to expand its de-escalation policies. By Frank S. Zhou
By Sally E. Edwards and Asher J. Montgomery, Crimson Staff Writers

Kenneth E. Reeves ’72, the president of the Cambridge chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said during a City Council hearing Tuesday that the Cambridge Police Department needs to dramatically expand its de-escalation policies.

Councilors called the hearing to discuss a February report from the Police Executive Research Forum in response to the 2023 police killing of Sayed Faisal. Faisal’s death sparked a monthslong series of protests from advocates who called the case an example of racism and police brutality and demanded reform.

Though the report recommended the department “adopt de-escalation as a formal agency policy” and present various less-lethal equipment options, among other reforms, it largely commended the CPD’s use-of-force policies and lauded the department’s efforts to implement body cameras.

But Reeves said the necessary reforms go far beyond the report’s recommendations.

“We didn’t find any new means of de-escalation, which is what the public has been waiting to know,” said Reeves, a former mayor of Cambridge. “If we don’t have new means, we’re still dealing with the same toolkit that we had when this happened.”

“I’m concerned that we don’t seem to have moved the needle on what the other things are that could have been done to avert this tragedy,” he added.

In her remarks to the Council, CPD Commissioner Christine A. Elow said the department is working with PERF to improve existing de-escalation tactics, adding new training regiments to already developed strategies.

“Our use of force has been trending downward since we started that training in 2019 — which is already pretty low for a department our size,” she said.

Elow also said the department is instating a “name release” policy that will require the department to name officers involved in “critical incidents.”

The department initially opted not to name Liam McMahon, the officer who shot Faisal until the Middlesex District Attorney had completed their investigation, despite repeated activist demands to release his name. While CPD eventually did so, PERF found that the department could have released his name shortly after the shooting in a September report.

Reeves said that the killing of Faisal was a “textbook case of non-transparency.”

“The public was very interested in who the shooter was, and very interested in why the deceased became the victim,” Reeves said. “The public couldn’t get answers to these questions.”

Councilor Sumbul Siddiqui questioned why the report did not include recommendations regarding the use of firearms, noting that Faisal, who wielded a knife, was shot six times.

Elow responded that McMahon appropriately applied CPD’s use-of-force policies during the encounter.

“We are trained to shoot to stop the threat, and in all the reports from Liam, he kept shooting until the threat stopped — and that was six shots,” Elow said.

Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons said that she “appreciates” the CPD’s efforts to improve de-escalation tactics, but recognizes that the department is “not perfect.”

“We have various approaches to de-escalating — and then we are met with a tragedy like this,” she said. “It continues to show us that we are not perfect, that we don’t have all the best tools in our toolbox, so how do we continue to build and train and learn?”

Elow also discussed the decision not to implement new less-lethal equipment, such as less-lethal launchers created by PepperBall and tasers, finding them “not operationally efficient.”

“We did not talk to the community – we’re not talking about introducing any new tools at this point,” Elow said. “What we’ve done is outfitted our department with less-lethal tools — but more of them — and then we train our entire police department on them.”

The department has recently expanded its use of existing less-lethal launchers — bright orange guns that shoot foam-tipped rounds designed to disarm individuals. The entire department underwent training in late March, and use of the technology has been expanded across the city.

“We have since deployed them to every car we have in our fleet,” said Elow.

Simmons said that Faisal's death continues to “haunt” the city as CPD works to reform.

“We see this all over that there really is this great distrust in police,” Simmons said. “We want to be able to be in a position where when we make that phone call as a loved one, as a neighbor, as a community member, that when the good guys are supposed to come out and do the call and do whatever they are to do, that there is not a life being lost or taken.”

—Staff writer Sally E. Edwards can be reached at Follow her on X @sallyedwards04 or on Threads @sally_edwards06.

—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at Follow her on X @asherjmont or on Threads @asher_montgomery.

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