Cambridge City Councilors, Residents Weigh Alternative Responses to Mental Health-Related 911 Calls


Cambridge city councilors and residents considered a proposed alternative to police responding to mental health-related 911 calls and discussed whether officers should patrol the Cambridge Housing Authority’s L.B. Johnson Apartments at their weekly meeting Monday.

Policy Order 7 would provide city funding to the Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team — a non-profit that promotes and practices non-police responses to people in crisis, particularly those with mental health issues — and involve the organization in city emergency response activities.

During the public comment section of the meeting, MIT professor Huma Gupta said the Council should fund HEART, citing her students’ struggles with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.

“This is why the killing of Sayed Faisal was so shocking and troubling to both my students who struggle with these mental illnesses and myself, because we knew it could have easily been any of them,” Gupta said.


Lexington resident Ken Reilly said in his public comment that in February 2022, the Lexington police shot and killed his son, whom Reilly added “had mental health issues.” Reilly was wielding a knife prior to being fatally shot, according to police.

“I can’t imagine the state of mind he was in,” Reilly said of his son. “So if you had someone who was skilled, they could’ve de-escalated it, because they would’ve known his background. They would have known this situation with my son.”

Most councilors said they were supportive of Policy Order 7 during the discussion.

Councilor Patricia M. Nolan ’80, who also supported the policy order, exercised her charter right to postpone a decision on the policy order to allow concerns over wording to be addressed.

The police were also at the crux of the debate over security at the Cambridge Housing Authority’s L.B. Johnson Apartments in Cambridgeport.

Police have been primarily called to the development by older residents who feel unsafe in the building hallways. Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan questioned why city police resources, and not private security, were being used to secure the residence.

City Manager Huang said private security services were impractical due to their poor interaction with residents and staffing issues, in response to Zondervan.

“Would it be really great if we had a non-police option that was able to do that? Yes,” Huang said. “Have we been able to actually build a really great team within the police department that is doing that role and getting to know everybody on the street and trying to engage with them? I think they’re doing a pretty amazing job.”

Councilor E. Denise Simmons said the residents’ choice of police protection reflected trust between the community and the department.

“Many of our senior citizens, when they think of safety, police is their go-to, and it’s good to know that in Cambridge our senior citizens and many others feel very comfortable going to the police department,” she said. “So that, in my opinion, bodes well for us.”

Throughout the meeting, councilors also passed policy orders relating to elevator failures in high-rise buildings, defibrillators in public parks, and housing vouchers.

The Council will continue its discussion of the HEART initiative at its next regular meeting on March 20.

—Staff writer Samuel P. Goldston can be reached at