Following the recommendation of an external review into Harvard’s police department, a newly formed committee comprised of affiliates spanning the University that will advise the department’s leadership held its inaugural meeting last month.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced the department review in June 2020 on the heels of student outrage over the presence of HUPD officers monitoring a protest in Boston following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police.
The external review produced a more comprehensive probe into HUPD than an internal review set in motion in February 2020 in response to an investigation by The Crimson that found repeated instances of racism and sexism in the department and held the department’s leadership responsible for perpetuating a toxic culture among officers.
The external report, produced by the law enforcement consulting agency 21CP Solutions, recommended the University create an advisory board comprised of a “diverse group” of University stakeholders. The committee should serve as a “sounding board” to provide feedback to the department regarding policing on campus, per the report.
Executive Vice President Katherine N. Lapp said in a March 23 interview with the Harvard Gazette — a University-run magazine — that the purpose of the board is in part to “enhance communication and transparency between the department and our community.”
The Gazette article also listed the members of the advisory board, which is made up of 13 Harvard affiliates, including students, faculty and staff. They include Quincy House Faculty Dean and government professor Eric Beerbohm, Undergraduate Council President Noah A. Harris ’22, the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Director of Diversity, Inclusivity and Belonging Tracie D. Jones, Kennedy School criminal justice professor Sandra Susan Smith, and two graduate students.
Harris said he was invited to serve on the board by the Dean of Students Office. As the only College student on the committee, Harris said he believes his primary role is to represent the student perspective.
“I feel like my presence on the board is pretty clear,” Harris said. “To make sure that everything that we do, everything that we put out, it’s something that students can engage with and it’s taking student perspectives into account.”
Director of Campus Services at Harvard Medical School Robert A. Dickson — another member of the Advisory Board — wrote in an email he believes it is important that members of the board actively listen to affiliates.
“As a member of the Advisory Board my goal is to listen to members of our community and provide relevant recommendations to HUPD leadership, with the ultimate goal of helping transform HUPD into a police department that every member of our diverse community can trust and can feel comfortable calling upon for service,” Dickson wrote.
The external review recommended the University engage in a “community-driven, stakeholder-involved process” to redefine public safety at Harvard. Among the factors to consider, the report includes exploring alternatives to police response for certain events, such as mental health interventions.
Tim Bowman, executive dean for administration and finance at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said he volunteered to join the board and believes exploring alternative responses to crises is one of the board’s top priorities.
“When might it make sense that HUPD is the first responder or is taking the lead on a particular issue? And when might it make sense for us to think as a university that, either in addition to or instead of a police officer, maybe it's someone else from the University that ends up getting dispatched to provide that help,” Bowman said. “Is it a mental health care provider? Is it someone from the residential life staff for a lock out?”
During its first meeting on March 26, Harris said the committee discussed exploring alternatives to HUPD. Per Harris, “a lot” of students believe an armed police officer should not be the first response to incidents including mental health crises, dorm room lock-outs, or substance-related emergencies. Harris suggested mental health professionals or representatives from the groups Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors and Peer Advising Fellows may be better suited to respond to such events.
“That may be more productive and that may create a community where we actually feel like we’re tailoring the situation with the person who we’re sending out,” Harris said.
According to a fall 2020 survey conducted by The Crimson, nearly one in three College students believe HUPD should be defunded or abolished.
Harris, though he said he has been critical of HUPD in the past, is “optimistic” that the advisory board will help to improve public safety at Harvard.
“As someone who has been critical of HUPD publicly through advocacy with the Undergraduate Council, I’m joining this space to try and bring some of that frustration that students have felt when a situation happens and they’re not able to have the access that they feel they need to HUPD to create change,” Harris said. “So that we’re not just waiting around for something else negative to happen.”
While the advisory board begins its work, the University is undergoing a search for a new chief — now in its ninth month — to replace interim chief Denis Downing, who assumed command from Francis D. “Bud” Riley. Riley helmed HUPD for 25 years before he retired at the end of 2020 amid controversy over his leadership.
Bowman said the board plans to work closely with the next chief, who he believes the University will announce “relatively soon.”
“The board expects to work very closely with the new chief as they come on board,” Bowman said. “We plan to help them get acclimated and understand what our expectations are as a community and how we can best serve them as they get oriented into this new role.”
—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.