Harvard University Police Department Deputy Chief of Operations Denis Downing, who has been at HUPD for more than two decades, will take over as Harvard’s interim chief of police Jan. 1 as a nationwide search for a new department leader continues.
Outgoing HUPD Chief Francis D. “Bud” Riley, 74, announced in June he would retire at year’s end after helming the department for a quarter of a century. Riley’s final year in the post was consumed by controversy over incidents of racism and sexism within HUPD, accusations that he perpetuated a toxic work culture, and students’ calls to abolish Harvard’s police force.
University Executive Vice President Katie N. Lapp confirmed in an interview with the Harvard Gazette, a University-run publication, published on Dec. 15 that Riley will retire at the end of the calendar year and that Downing will serve as interim chief until Riley’s replacement takes the reins.
Downing joined HUPD as a patrol officer in 1998 and has since risen the department’s ranks.
Downing wrote in an email to The Crimson it will be a “great honor” to serve as interim chief and that he and the department are open to reforming.
“We are committed to being a learning organization that takes every opportunity to learn from both successes and failures and continuously seeks to improve both how we interact amongst each other and the community,” Downing wrote.
The University formed a search committee in August to lead a nationwide search for Riley’s successor. Lapp told the Gazette that the committee has held 13 “listening sessions” with University affiliates — including students, faculty, and staff — to solicit their input on the future of HUPD. She also said the committee is in the process of reviewing applications of potential candidates and “will begin first-round interviews via Zoom early in 2021.”
“Our intention is to work hard to identify the right candidate and take the time to do so,” Lapp added.
In the meantime, Downing will lead the department during a precarious time for HUPD and policing more broadly.
A January 2020 investigation by The Crimson found incidents of discrimination within the department against female officers and officers of color. Nearly two dozen officers accused the department’s leadership of showing favoritism to certain officers and retaliating against others who spoke out against their alleged mistreatment.
As interim chief, Downing will oversee the early stages of HUPD’s implementation of recommendations set forth by an external review into HUPD’s policing practices. University President Lawrence S. Bacow launched the review following backlash over the presence of HUPD officers monitoring a Black Lives Matter protest in Boston.
The external review, published in a December report, recommended long-term philosophical reforms and short-term immediate changes, including the creation of a “diverse, active and engaged” advisory board to offer HUPD “guidance” and serve as an accountability mechanism.
In discussing the findings of the external review, Lapp announced the formation of two groups — a HUPD Advisory Board and a Facilitating Committee – to provide “feedback” to the department and to “clearly define the Harvard community’s expectations with regards to safety and well-being,” respectively, per her interview in the Gazette. The advisory board is expected to convene by March 31 and the facilitating committee is slated to meet by April 30.
Downing also wrote in his email the department is looking for ways to “reengage with the community” and establish new relationships across the University.
“I and every member of the HUPD will work diligently to serve the students, faculty, staff, and others who are part the Harvard community,” he wrote.
—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.