No Justice For Faisal – Cambridge City Council Rejects Move For Police Accountability

Jun 2, 2023 | Cambridge, PEWG blog

In January, Cambridge police killed Arif Sayed Faisal, a 20-year-old UMass student experiencing a mental health crisis. Despite multiple protests and community outrage in the 5 months since the shooting, neither Cambridge Police (CPD) nor the established Police Review and Advisory Board (PRAB) have taken any concrete action to address the situation.

On February 14th, CPD determined that “based on all of the information that has been reviewed so far, the department has not identified any egregious misconduct or significant policy, training, equipment, or disciplinary violations.” Perhaps this is true – but this pronouncement comes from the very party whose actions are under scrutiny. Why should we accept it at face value?

Decades ago, the PRAB ceded its power back to CPD – the very organization PRAB is supposed to monitor! The PRAB, instead of investigating allegations of police misconduct themselves, decided to let the “Cambridge Police Department conduct investigations on behalf of the board.” This is ridiculous on its face. It should go without saying that Justice  without impartiality is not justice. But if the history of US police violence over the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that the police cannot be trusted to police themselves. 

Per current ordinanc language, the PRAB is hand-picked by our City Manager – who is themself not elected. It is past time for an elected PRAB – not one that is 3 steps removed from the voters and that has given up on its job. If we want any transparency or accountability from CPD, we must have a review board that is (1) independent from CPD and (2) accountable to our community, not an unelected bureaucrat.

On May 22nd, City Councillor Zondervan proposed a policy order that would do just that – by putting the question of electing the PRAB on the November ballot.

This would be an opportunity for our community – a community that has shown its disappointment in the lack of police accountability and transparency in our city – to have input on police disciplinary procedures.

The process around this policy order – Order #96 – was an embarrassment to democracy. After Zondervan introduced the order, typically it would have been discussed, debated, delayed (if councillors wanted more time for consideration), and ultimately, voted on. Instead, Councillor Toner did something virtually unprecedented: he motioned immediately to end debate and move straight to a vote.

His motion passed with a 6-3 vote, with Councillors Zondervan and Nolan, as well as Mayor Siddiqui, dissenting. (It’s worth pointing out that besides Zondervan, the other two dissenting voices presumably voted no because they wanted to speak on the order.)

Councillor Toner’s platform lists “promoting civil and inclusive dialogue” as his number one campaign priority. It was anything but civil and inclusive for Councillor Toner to end debate before his colleagues had had a chance to speak. His motion was disrespectful and anti-democratic, and it flew in the face of his own stated highest principles. Disgraceful.

The other five councillors who supported the motion to end debate are also to blame. It’s one thing to disagree with the proposal, but it’s another altogether to stifle debate on it. What were they afraid of? 

Once that motion passed, Order #96 was voted on and failed 1-8, with Zondervan as the lone “aye” vote. Many councillors expressed that their “no” votes were based not on the content of the order itself but the spontaneity of its introduction and the lack of prior discussion on it. But these are the same councillors who voted to close discussion!

If these councillors had wanted more time to consider the order before open debate, there is a separate option for that: City Councillors have the right to delay a vote on a proposed order until the next council meeting. This is a commonly used tool among councillors to ensure they can make informed decisions before taking votes. That six of our nine councillors chose to close discussion outright rather than exercise this option has no justification. All six of these councillors say they want to do everything they can in the aftermath of what happened to Faisal, but when given the chance to discuss legislation that’s popular with their constituents and could have actually made a difference, they abruptly abandoned those commitments.

When they did so, they also abandoned their commitment to listen to their constituents. In fact, the idea of a democratically elected PRAB was conceived not by Zondervan but by a group of constituents who asked him to propose the order.

This episode was a gross miscarriage of democracy and showed a disturbing disconnect between the City Council and their constituents – the working-class Cambridge community. The order’s failure shows that the council is not listening to the growing movement of people demanding justice for Faisal and accountability from the police, which is itself beyond disheartening, and the manner in which the bill failed is equally, if not more, infuriating. 

The Council’s redundant policy rules forbid any councillor from reintroducing this legislation this cycle, meaning no one will be able to propose this order until 2024. Cambridge won’t have the option to vote on whether we want an elected PRAB in 2023.   With this shameful, anti-democratic vote, the Council has determined that the voters can’t be trusted to decide what police accountability looks like – despite the complete inaction and lack of transparency surrounding Faisal’s murder. 

I hope the voters will keep this in mind as we elect our council this November – and that we replace these vanguards of the status quo with a city council that will uphold democracy and fight for police accountability. As proud socialists, we know that civilian monitoring and investigatory oversight of the police is not the end of the road. We know that the only thing that will stop police brutality is defunding and abolishing the police. But we have to start somewhere. We can start by watching and recommending discipline.