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That a mental crisis escalated to a chase by at least four police officers and ended up in the death of an individual is heartbreaking, to say the least. Even as the details surrounding Sayed Faisal’s fatal encounter with Cambridge Police Department officers on Jan. 4 are yet to be uncovered, one thing remains clear: The system failed Faisal.
Sayed Faisal, an only child of Bangladeshi immigrants, was a computer engineering student at the University of Massachusetts Boston who hoped to pursue a career creating video games. Faisal was a beloved member of his community and will be dearly missed. We cannot imagine the loss and pain his family and friends must feel at this time. We offer our deepest condolences to his loved ones as they grieve.
This was the first fatal shooting by Cambridge police in over 20 years, but that figure does not offer comfort, nor does it warrant a pat on the back. Rather, it forces us to contend with some uncomfortable truths regarding failures of proactivity and accountability in the law enforcement system.
The death of Sayed Faisal serves as a reminder of a hardly revelatory fact: that police officers are not equipped to handle mental health emergencies. According to a report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, at least one in four fatal police encounters leads to the death of individuals with severe mental illness, making them 16 times more likely to die from a police encounter compared to other civilians when approached by the police. It is deeply concerning that encounters between police officers and individuals experiencing mental health crises recurrently end up in the death of a civilian.
It bears repeating: Sayed Faisal should have received help, not a bullet.
This incident underscores the need for urgent and comprehensive reform in how law enforcement handles mental health crises. The City of Cambridge ought to expedite its rollout of resources for non-violent 911 calls. As we’ve opined in the past, funding for programs such as the Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team and the Cambridge Department of Community Safety, which are each viable alternatives for emergency response, should be a priority for the Cambridge City Council.
By partnering with Harvard researchers and other experts in the field, the City of Cambridge can adopt best practices to initiate new systems, encourage their use, and generously scale funding as necessary. Given that HEART’s call volume has reportedly almost tripled since Faisal’s shooting, the cost of delaying the implementation and support of such alternative emergency response programs may well be denominated in lives.
Beyond restructuring the law enforcement system to take a more proactive approach to crisis management, securing accountability for police actions is of the utmost importance. Transparency in policing is of even greater concern given that this editorial comes in the wake of not only Faisal’s shooting, but also Tyre Nichols’s tragic death at the hands of Memphis police officers. The fact that there is limited public information on the specific circumstances surrounding Faisal’s death multiple weeks into the investigation is appalling — something only aided by a lack of body camera footage from the incident.
That a city as progressive as Cambridge lacks a basic mechanism of accountability as body cameras is difficult to comprehend. We call on the City of Cambridge to implement body cameras immediately for Cambridge Police Department officers — addressing in particular City Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan, who was the only member in a recent Council session to oppose this measure.
Our call comes not because we believe that body cameras will serve as the end-all, be-all solution to police violence — if anything, the current research has shown mixed reviews on the impact of body cameras on police violence — but out of an understanding that in some cases of police brutality, body camera footage may sometimes be the only source of justice for victims’ families. Such footage allows the public to see what otherwise could have been concealed, and is thus potentially critical to holding officers accountable.
The implementation of body cameras, however, should not be a carte blanche for the invasion of privacy through technological means. Common sense privacy restrictions, such as not allowing mass facial recognition and surveillance, should be put in place to ensure the protection of individuals.
Sayed Faisal’s death should not have occurred for lack of an empathetic emergency response infrastructure; nor should justice for his killing be delayed by a lack of police accountability mechanisms. Ultimately, when we get to the reactive, we have already failed at the level of the proactive. We must work to ensure that individuals do not continue to pay for mental health crises with their lives.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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