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City Councilors Spar Over Body Cameras, Police Oversight at Special Meeting on Shooting of Sayed Faisal

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Cambridge City Councilors sparred over whether the Cambridge Police Department should implement body cameras and what role the Council should play in regulating the department at a special meeting Wednesday on the police killing of Sayed Faisal.

The nearly three-hour session — a continuation of last week’s special hearing — was switched to an online format the day after protesters stormed Cambridge City Hall to demand justice for Faisal. Despite the virtual gathering, dozens protested on the city hall steps, chanting and waving signs reading, “Jail All Racist Killer Cops,” and “Accountability Now.”

Faisal, a 20-year-old University of Massachusetts Boston student and Cambridge resident, was shot and killed by a Cambridge Police Department officer on Jan. 4. The fatal shooting remains under investigation by the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office, but without body camera footage of the shooting, many questions about its circumstances linger.

Unlike neighboring Boston and Somerville, Cambridge has not instituted body cameras for police officers. Some demonstrators at recent protests in the wake of the shooting have called for CPD to adopt body cameras, while others said they were concerned about increasing police funding to support their implementation.

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These debates were reflected in Wednesday’s Council meeting, in which councilors clashed over whether to take up a policy order calling for the use of body cameras by CPD.

“My support for body cameras is not because I necessarily think that it’s going to lead to a particularly different outcome, but it really is about transparency and accountability,” said Councilor Marc C. McGovern.

Six councilors said they supported implementing body cameras. One councilor, Quinton Y. Zondervan, expressed opposition, citing privacy concerns.

“For the most part, they do not solve the problems that we are discussing here today,” Zondervan said. “What’s happening is a systemic problem with policing and with our approach to community safety, and unfortunately, body cameras don’t really address that.”

The implementation of body cameras has been “a topic of conversation for several years now,” CPD Commissioner Christine A. Elow said during the Wednesday meeting.

City Manager Yi-An Huang ’05 noted that the city last explored requiring body cameras for officers in 2020 and the previous initiative could provide a foundation for a body camera program.

Elow said though obstacles remain for the implementation of body cameras, she is open to the idea of using them.

“Cameras are a valuable tool. They enhance transparency, accountability, and build community trust,” Elow said. “Body cameras are correlated with reductions of abuses of force and reduces citizens’ complaints.”

Zondervan also proposed compensation from the city to the family of Faisal. Huang said that any compensation would require a legal settlement.

Following the discussion of compensation, Councilor Paul F. Toner said he was concerned that the discussion was falling outside of the Council’s purview.

“In my opinion, the City Council is going way beyond the realm of our role,” Toner said. “I’m not here to run the police department. I’m not here to make the decisions for the Commissioner.”

“I do think we have a wonderful department,” he added.

Zondervan closed the meeting with a contentious response to Toner.

“I appreciate and understand that the rage of this conversation may be making him uncomfortable,” Zondervan said. “I do urge him to review our code of ordinances, where the City Council has complete purview and jurisdiction over our police department.”

“I also urge him to respect my First Amendment rights to speak about whatever I feel like,” he added.

—Staff writer Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen can be reached at ryan.doannguyen@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryandoannguyen.

—Staff writer Yusuf S. Mian can be reached at yusuf.mian@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @yusuf_mian2.

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