On the afternoon of Jan. 4, 20-year-old Sayed Faisal, a Cambridge resident and Bangladeshi American college student, was shot and killed by a Cambridge Police Department officer.
His death has thrown Cambridge into an uproar, leading to protests across the city, confrontations with city officials at public meetings, and the storming of Cambridge City Hall. Some demonstrators have charged that Faisal’s death was an incident of police brutality, racism, and Islamophobia.
Protests over the fatal shooting of Faisal come amid a national reckoning on policing, marked by outrage against systemic racism and police violence brought on by high-profile police killings. Just days after Faisal’s death, 29-year-old Tyre Nichols was beaten and killed by Memphis police, sparking nationwide outrage and demonstrations that reached Harvard’s campus.
Faisal’s case has come under an international spotlight and ignited scrutiny into CPD practices, while activists and some local leaders have renewed calls for police reform and public safety alternatives, arguing that police are ill-equipped to respond to mental health crises.
Two days after Faisal’s death, the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement from his parents, Sayed Mujibullah and Mosammat Shaheda.
Faisal — whom they called Prince — was “loving,” “generous,” and “deeply family-oriented,” they wrote.
“Prince was a normal law-abiding citizen who had no record of any kind with law enforcement. He was never violent towards anyone,” they wrote. “We want to know what happened and how this tragic event unfolded.”
At 1:15 p.m. on Jan. 4, a 911 caller reported that a man — later identified as Faisal — had jumped out of a window and was harming himself, according to a CPD statement.
Following a foot chase through five blocks of Cambridgeport, Faisal allegedly moved towards officers wielding a knife, and an officer shot him with a non-lethal sponge round.
When that failed to stop him from advancing, a CPD officer fatally shot him.
There is no body camera footage of the shooting, as CPD officers are not equipped with cameras. Surveillance footage released by the department shows a shirtless Faisal being chased by at least four officers.
CPD spokesperson Jeremy C. Warnick wrote in an emailed statement that Faisal’s death marked the first fatal officer-involved shooting by Cambridge Police in more than 20 years.
Warnick also shared that the officer who shot Faisal is a seven-year veteran of the department who has never received a complaint before.
The killing is currently under investigation by Middlesex County District Attorney Marian T. Ryan, while the officer has been placed on paid administrative leave.
Following the shooting, Cambridge Police Commissioner Christine A. Elow pledged full cooperation of CPD with the investigation.
City officials have opted not to release the names of the officers involved in the killing, citing department practices. The names of the officers and the police reports corresponding to the incident are expected to be released upon completion of the district attorney’s investigation.
In the month following Faisal’s death, Cambridge has been rocked by protests railing against police violence. Outrage against city officials culminated in the disruption of an otherwise ordinary Cambridge City Council meeting on Jan. 23.
As public comment came to a close, dozens of protesters simultaneously rose from the gallery and began chanting “Release the names,” “No justice, no peace,” and “Send those killer cops to jail.”
The Council immediately motioned to recess.
Boston Party for Socialism and Liberation organizer Suhail P. Purkar, who led the council meeting protest, said in an interview that Faisal’s killing “hit very close to home.”
“We can’t allow them to have business as usual,” he said. “So we need to have some sort of disruption.”
Demonstrators marched from the Council chamber to Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui’s office, confronting her and demanding she release the officers’ names.
Purkar said he takes issue with the City’s decision to wait until after the investigation to publicize the officers’ names, adding he has “no faith whatsoever” in the investigation.
“If the names of the officers aren’t released, and members of the community don’t have the opportunity to come forward and say, ‘This happened to us,’ how can we say there was a full investigation?” Purkar said.
Activists have repeatedly called for the officers involved in Faisal’s killing to be named, terminated, and ultimately prosecuted.
Cambridge’s wave of protests began outside City Hall on Jan. 5, the day after Faisal was killed. Demonstrators returned on Jan. 9 — some carrying a large hand-painted portrait of Faisal — rallying for justice and reform on the same day that protesters in Dhaka, Bangladesh, formed a human chain to protest his killing.
Rallies spilled into Cambridgeport — the site of Faisal’s death — on Jan. 11, Harvard Square on Jan. 14, and the district attorney’s office on Jan. 21.
Throughout the demonstrations, protesters have voiced demands for police demilitarization, public safety alternatives, and reallocation of police funding. These demands were delivered directly by protesters to city officials at Cambridge Police headquarters on Jan. 29 at the conclusion of a nearly two-mile march from Somerville High School, Faisal’s alma mater.
Several organizers entered the police station in hopes of delivering their demands to Elow directly.
“They’re calling to see if Police Commissioner Christine Elow is here and if she’s brave enough to actually face her own community,” Purkar told attendees.
After being informed that Elow was not available to speak with them, organizers left their written demands and led chants of “We’ll be back!”
Faisal, an only child of Bangladeshi immigrants, leaves behind a city in grief.
His family came to the United States roughly a decade ago, according to the Boston Globe. Faisal then enrolled at the Winter Hill Community Innovation School, a pre-kindergarten to eighth grade public school in Somerville.
Sara Halawa, an organizer with Safe Schools Somerville, said Faisal was involved in several organizations for immigrant youth. He contributed artwork to the Mystic River Mural Project, an environmental art project spanning more than two decades, according to Halawa. He also spoke at a Center for Teen Empowerment Peace Conference and served as an interpreter at Somerville’s Welcome Project, which provides language learning and civic engagement services for immigrants.
“This was someone who worked hard — who participated in the community,” Halawa said.
At an emotional Harvard Square demonstration, organizers read statements from Faisal’s friends and teachers.
According to one friend’s statement, Faisal enjoyed customizing shoes and would spend days perfecting them. Faisal, a computer engineering student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, hoped to pursue a career creating video games.
“He had hopes and dreams, and the Cambridge Police stole that away from him,” the statement read.
Mujibullah, Faisal’s father, said through a translator that Faisal “was a very meritorious student” in a Jan. 5 interview with WCVB, adding that he had hoped his son would become a doctor or engineer.
“Now, all hope is gone,” he said.
Maria Khwaja, who taught Faisal at Somerville High School, said she couldn’t believe it was him when she read news of the shooting.
“I sat in my garage, and I cried for 30 minutes because this kid should have been okay,” she told protesters. “I have never lost a student like this.”
On the steps of Cambridge City Hall, Amtiaz Uddin broke down in tears as he reflected on his best friend’s life, recalling days spent playing cricket, riding bikes through the city, skateboarding, and going to the gym together.
“Someone can never hate him,” Uddin said. “No one can feel uncomfortable around him.”
At a Jan 11. vigil held at the Cambridgeport corner where Faisal was killed, community leaders directed prayers in different faiths — Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Christianity — as residents held candles and laid flowers at an altar created in his honor.
In the wake of Faisal’s death, the Bangladeshi Association of New England launched a GoFundMe to support his family. As of Thursday, the campaign had raised more than $70,000 of its $100,000 goal.
“I’ve struggled to find the words to address everyone amidst this tragedy,” Siddiqui told residents at a Council meeting the week following the shooting. “As your mayor, as a South Asian immigrant deeply connected to the large Bengali community here in Cambridge, I offer my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Sayed Arif Faisal.”
Before Faisal, the last police killing in Cambridge took place in 2002, when CPD officers fatally shot a man armed with a hatchet in his East Cambridge home.
Daniel Furtado, a 59-year-old with a history of mental illness, allegedly charged at officers after they fired tear gas into his house and broke down his door, leading officers to open fire.
In the intervening years, the department has repeatedly faced calls to change its response to health emergencies.
In April 2018, CPD arrested a Black Harvard undergraduate after the College’s Yardfest concert, sparking allegations of police brutality. Harvard University Health Services had transferred 911 callers reporting a naked man standing in Massachusetts Ave. to CPD.
Videos and an official report later released by CPD showed that officers tackled the student — whom they believed to be under the influence of narcotics — and punched him five times in the torso. Following the arrest, the student was bleeding and was transported to a local hospital.
Three days after the incident, then-CPD Commissioner Branville G. Bard, Jr. defended the officers involved in the arrest.
“I absolutely do support the officers,” he said. “You have to judge their actions within the context of a rapidly evolving situation and not within an ideal construct.”
The incident led to significant public backlash, including protests against the department on Harvard’s campus and the creation of an office within CPD tasked with monitoring racial bias and use of force.
An independent review of the arrest found that officers did not violate department policy and there was “no evidence” of excessive force.
But hundreds of Harvard students and affiliates viewed the incident differently, calling on Harvard to develop a “medical emergency response team” that would respond to drug and alcohol-related calls — and remove CPD from the process entirely.
CPD has also faced calls to demilitarize. In July 2020, the department released a report detailing the extent of its armory at the direction of the City Council. The report revealed that the department owned numerous assault weapons and one Lenco BearCat.
The BearCat — a $350,000 armored vehicle — was previously used at a Black Lives Matter prayer march in 2016 as CPD officers wearing military gear observed a rally with the vehicle parked in front of protesters.
Under the leadership of Bard, CPD made strides toward demilitarization. In 2021, the department agreed to eliminate 20 percent of its long guns and end the use of camouflage uniforms for its officers. CPD also changed its policies to ensure that the BearCat could only be used with the police commissioner’s direct approval.
Warnick wrote in a statement that CPD will release an updated inventory for 2022 next week and confirmed that the BearCat is still in the department’s inventory but needs the commissioner’s approval to be deployed.
The surge of protests around Faisal’s killing came almost exactly a year after Elow’s appointment as CPD’s permanent commissioner in January 2022. In a CPD press release at the time, Elow said she hoped to make the department “the model for policing” in the United States.
In a Feb. 16, 2022, interview with The Crimson, Elow said she viewed the Yardfest arrest as a learning experience, adding that she hoped to work with universities to offer “amnesty” to students in crisis.
The search for alternatives to policing in Cambridge had been years in progress when Faisal was killed.
In response to the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the Cambridge City Council looked to create changes to public safety.
Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan called for the reallocation of police funding to programs to “better support young people, especially Black youth.”
Ultimately, city councilors passed a policy order calling on the city to reexamine its approach to public safety, leading to the establishment of the Cambridge Public Safety Task Force.
In May 2021, the task force released their final report, writing that while CPD was “looked to as a national leader in proactive, progressive, community-based policing,” it was necessary to reconsider “what the best practices in public safety truly ought to be.”
The primary recommendation of the report was to create the Cambridge Department of Community Safety, which would respond to some 911 calls, such as emergencies involving mental health crises, substance abuse, and unhoused residents.
As the city weighed the department’s creation, the City Council passed a policy order considering funding for Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team, an independent public safety organization first proposed by The Black Response, a group that supports police abolition.
In an interview, Stephanie Guirand — who serves as president of HEART — said frustration with Cambridge’s approach led her and others to create HEART as an entity outside the oversight of the city.
“We asked a city councilor to put in a policy order for task force transparency and it failed, so at that point we doubled down on creating a very, very public process that we would facilitate ourselves,” she said.
Last year, the City Council considered action on both the Community Safety Department and HEART, but ultimately opted to fund the former with $3 million for fiscal year 2023. By contrast, CPD was provided $73.5 million in funding, up from $69 million in 2022.
The Community Safety Department remains in its implementation process. In the interim, Elizabeth M. Speakman, who serves as coordinator of domestic and gender-based violence prevention for the city, is leading the emerging department.
Purkar expressed concerns about the newly created department’s proximity to the police department and current emergency response system.
“They do collaborate closely with the police department, and that is essentially where the calls get rerouted to,” he said. “So that’s actually something that we don’t support whatsoever.”
Guirand said following the killing of Faisal, HEART’s call volume has “almost tripled,” adding that the team hopes to add additional responders, as it only has seven at present.
The City Council has also taken up consideration of changes to policing practices at several special meetings in the wake of Faisal’s killing.
At a Jan. 18 meeting, following questioning from councilors on the city’s use of force policy, CPD officer Cameron Deane said lethal force is sometimes necessary, adding that pursuing suspects without lethal force “can’t be the only option.”
Zondervan called for disarming CPD officers.
“The problem is not the training. It’s the gun,” he said.
At a Jan. 25 continuation of the Council’s special session, councilors debated implementing body cameras for CPD. Six councilors spoke in support of body cameras, while Zondervan opposed them out of privacy concerns.
Massachusetts legislators reintroduced a proposal for a Medical Civil Rights Act on Jan. 20. The act would require police officers to “immediately request emergency medical services” during any medical crisis.
The right to medical care has never been guaranteed by law in any state. Advocates of the bill, which has also been introduced in Connecticut and Maine, say that it would help protect individuals — particularly those experiencing mental health crises — when interacting with police.
Zondervan said during a Jan. 9 Council meeting days after Faisal’s killing that the city needs to “drastically change” its approach to public safety.
“We’ve heard that Cambridge is special and that our progressive approach to policing sets us apart,” Zondervan said. “Yet here we are somehow trying to process the reality that a Cambridge Police officer shot and killed a young man from our community while he was experiencing a crisis.”
“It’s a dark moment in Cambridge’s history that we will never forget,” he added.
If you or someone you know needs help at Harvard, contact Counseling and Mental Health Services at (617) 495-2042 or the Harvard University Police Department at (617) 495-1212. Several peer counseling groups offer confidential peer conversations; learn more here.
You can contact a University Chaplain to speak one-on-one at email@example.com or here.
You can also call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
—Staff writer Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ryandoannguyen.
—Staff writer Yusuf S. Mian can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @yusuf_mian2.
—Staff writer John N. Peña can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @john_pena7.