Can HUPD Reform?

Nearly a year after HUPD Chief Victor A. Clay took over the department on a pledge to reform, he faces fundamental questions about the department’s role on campus.
By Camille G. Caldera
By Sarah Girma and Brandon L. Kingdollar

When Francis D. “Bud” Riley took over as chief of the Harvard University Police Department in January 1996, he did so on a mandate of reform.

The department, which had faced allegations of racism and misconduct in the years prior, appeared set to move in a new direction under the former Massachusetts State Police lieutenant colonel. A new method of “community policing” was the future of HUPD, he contended.

Just shy of a quarter-century later, in 2020, Riley left Harvard facing allegations that he fostered a culture of racism, sexism, and favoritism within the ranks of his department.

Now, a new voice for reform has taken his place.

Victor A. Clay, who took over as HUPD chief in July 2021, has said he will shift the department’s philosophy.

In his first year on the job, Clay has made a number of internal changes, some of which follow recommendations from a 2020 external review of HUPD that called for major shifts in the department’s approach. In an interview this month, he pointed to an array of reforms: expanding officer training with a focus on emotional intelligence, developing a closer working relationship with Harvard Human Resources, and exploring alternatives to armed police response.

Clay’s message sounds different than his predecessor’s: He rejects the term “community policing,” which Riley championed. But he faces a skeptical campus: Nearly half of respondents to The Crimson’s Class of 2025 freshman survey expressed support for defunding the police. Unlike the 1990s, campus activism on policing often centers around calls for abolition — not just reform.

Asked about student calls for police abolition, Clay said he believes it is important to listen to students’ concerns, rather than responding in an “adversarial” manner.

“I think that’s a slippery slope, for a chief of police to say something in opposition of a group that is calling for you to do better, to be better,” Clay said. “I say listen, take the lessons learned, and then move forward from that point.”

Some students, though, say Clay’s talk of reform means little to them.

“Even these reforms that Chief Clay is proposing aren’t going to change the fundamental purpose of HUPD,” said Claire E. Pryor ’23.

“I want to call out what I see as a level of appropriating reformist rhetoric in order to fundamentally continue the status quo,” Pryor said.

‘A Cycle that We’ve Seen So Many Times’

In the early morning hours of March 6, Marissa J. Joseph ’23 stood at the gates of Kirkland House trying to prevent HUPD officers from entering her dorm.

Her roommate, Hoda E. Abdalla ’23, had contacted the house’s tutor-on-call about a medical emergency — a friend who was unconscious — but, according to both students, they had explicitly requested that HUPD not be involved.

In interviews this month, Joseph said she told the officers they did not have her consent to enter the dorm, as they were not medical professionals. She said she only wanted emergency medical technicians who had arrived on scene to enter.

The EMTs proceeded through, but an HUPD escort accompanied them into the dorm, Joseph and Abdalla said. At the gates, the situation escalated: Joseph and the tutor were engaged in an argument about the tutor’s decision to bring in HUPD.

Soon, according to Joseph, an HUPD officer became involved. Joseph said a female officer who was already present at the scene began to laugh at her and, after Joseph confronted her about it, pulled up her face mask and began filming Joseph on a personal cell phone.

The department’s public log for March 6 reports that HUPD was dispatched to Kirkland’s Bryan Hall at 2:30 a.m. in response to an individual who was reported unconscious.

“Officer responding to a report of an unconscious individual was approached upon arrival by an individual who engaged in confrontational and argumentative behavior,” the log reads. “To prevent further delay in response to the unconscious individual, additional officers were dispatched. Officer reported that additional officers arrived on scene and the individual left the area.”

In a tweet later that morning, Joseph, a Crimson Editorial editor, wrote that the conduct of the officer who she said recorded her was racially motivated, alleging that the officer “accosted and harassed” her.

“Her first instinct when seeing a black person in crisis, particularly one who attends the university she is directly in service off, was to treat me like a minstrel show for her enjoyment,” Joseph wrote of the officer who recorded her.

“Me who stands at 5ft4inches and has zero physically threatening attributes aside from my Blackness,” she added in a subsequent tweet.

Artha K. Jonassaint ’24, who witnessed the altercation outside with the officers, wrote in an email that she felt “helpless” during the situation.

“Witnessing a Black student, my friend, being mocked and harassed by the HUPD is not something I will soon forget,” wrote Jonaissant, a Crimson Sports editor.

HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano declined to comment on the allegations, citing department policy against discussing specific incidents.

“It is the long standing policy of the Harvard University Police Department not to comment on specific events or name witnesses, victims or other people involved in an incident,” Catalano said.

It was not the first time HUPD officers had come under fire for alleged racism.

Riley’s “community policing” tack, new to Harvard in the 1990s, came in response to tensions between students and the department under the school’s previous police chief, Paul E. Johnson.

Johnson’s HUPD had received scrutiny in the early 1990s over several incidents of alleged racial profiling. In 1992, the Harvard Black Students Association — then called the Harvard-Radcliffe BSA — published a flyer calling for police reform, entitled “On the Harvard Plantation,” that detailed four police stops it said were racially motivated.

“Even at one of the most prestigious universities in America, YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK people are treated like second-class citizens,” the flyer read.

“We realized that there might be a systemic issue here,” the BSA’s then-president, Zaheer Ali ’94, said in an interview this month.

Ali said one of the BSA’s primary concerns was the department’s “prevailing assumptions” about who should be on Harvard’s campus.

“We were calling for sensitivity training, and I think that tells you how much the Overton window has shifted,” Ali said. “At the time, that was a big deal for us as students to even make the claim in writing that we did.”

The BSA document was released the same month that police officers who brutally beat Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 were acquitted in court, sparking a wave of protests in the city.

In 2020, after a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, murdered George Floyd, a new group was formed calling for the abolition of HUPD — the Harvard Alliance Against Campus Cops.

Protesters called for then-HUPD Chief Francis D. Bud Riley's removal. in February 2020.
Protesters called for then-HUPD Chief Francis D. Bud Riley's removal. in February 2020. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

In a report released in 2020, the group cited concerns about the standards officers use to determine who belongs on campus — similar to the BSA in 1992. The 2020 report said HUPD treats differently “students of color, poor and houseless community members, or community members living with mental illness.”

Data provided by HUPD’s workload and crime dashboard show the department arrested Black people at a disproportionate rate from 2018 to 2020.

Pryor said the stops described in the 1992 flyer are emblematic of HUPD’s “history of discriminately surveilling Black students and students of color.” She cited a 2019 incident in which students of color were questioned in Harvard Yard while setting up a class art exhibit.

The police behavior drew backlash from students and faculty, though a subsequent Faculty of Arts and Sciences report found that officers did not operate with “malicious intent” when stopping the students.

HUPD officers have continued to face allegations of bias and misconduct in recent years. Officer Anthony T. Carvello was involved in multiple use of force incidents that took place in 2019 and 2020, when he allegedly used excessive force against at least three Black men while removing them from for trespassing at Harvard’s Smith Campus Center.

A 2020 Crimson investigation also revealed multiple instances of racist and sexist behavior internal to the department. In an interview this month, Clay said he “will not tolerate” similar behavior, adding: “I was a consumer of that article, too.”’

“I’m actively looking to make sure things like that don’t exist today,” Clay said. “If there’s smoke to that fire, I’m going to investigate it. I’m going to use HR as a partner, and we’re going to resolve the issue quickly.”

Clay has restructured the department since arriving in July 2021. More than half of the senior staff in place when he arrived has departed or been reassigned. He created a new rank of captain, and is now in the process of hiring a new group of lieutenants, he said.

“The captains were all promoted from within, so there’s a boost in morale,” Clay said. “There’s a lot of movement within the department, and I think it keeps folks energized.”

The Harvard University Police Department has undergone an internal restructuring since its new chief, Victor A. Clay, took over in July 2021.
The Harvard University Police Department has undergone an internal restructuring since its new chief, Victor A. Clay, took over in July 2021. By Julian J. Giordano

Pryor said the department’s history leads her to doubt the current reform efforts, which she said are part of “a cycle that we’ve seen so many times” of nonsubstantive reform in response to criticism.

Others, though, are more optimistic. Noah A. Harris ’22, who served as president of the Undergraduate Council and sits on the HUPD Advisory Board, said he is “pleased with the reforms that have happened” under Clay.

“I have seen genuine, thorough efforts being made to make changes that students have been calling for for decades,” Harris said.

Harris said part of the Advisory Board’s work has been to restore trust damaged by actions of officers in past years and to “help those wounds heal faster.”

‘Re-Imagining Public Safety’

The external review into HUPD — launched by the University in June 2020, just days after Riley said he would retire — called on the school to begin the project of “re-imagining public safety,” including finding alternatives to police response to some emergencies.

Clay said he regularly speaks with the executive director of Harvard University Health Services, Giang T. Nguyen, about improving strategies to address student mental health crises and exploring alternatives to armed police response.

“I talk to him monthly and we talk about programs — we’re looking,” Clay said. “We’re trying to find one that fits the Harvard community well, because, again, it’s about protecting the rights of the students.”

Clay added he is working on a proposal to add five new Campus Support Officer positions to the force. CSOs would be unarmed, uniformed officers who would respond to calls that do not require an armed presence, such as students who are locked out of their dorms.

Clay is also a member of the Reimagining Campus Community Safety initiative, a working group launched at the recommendation of the HUPD external review. He described his work with the group as “really, really positive.” In his “Chief’s Greeting,” Clay pledged to work with students to reevaluate HUPD’s role in campus safety.

“I am excited to partner with a variety of student-based groups and with faculty and staff on campus to rethink, and reassess, how we serve you, and also, to determine when another professional might be better suited to provide support,” Clay wrote.

HUPD Chief Victor A. Clay.
HUPD Chief Victor A. Clay. By Courtesy of Curtis Dahl

But when Joseph and Abdalla sought medical help for their friend, HUPD got the call and responded alongside EMTs — even though the pair said they asked the tutor multiple times not to involve the police.

Abdalla said when they called for help, they did not know about Harvard’s policy requiring tutors to call campus police in order to obtain medical assistance. The rule was explained to Abdalla only after HUPD had arrived in her room, she said.

Harvard College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo confirmed that tutors are required to call HUPD in the event of a student medical emergency so that officers can direct responders to the proper location and provide building access.

“If I would have known that, then I would not have called my tutor,” Abdalla said.

Abdalla said there should be greater transparency surrounding this protocol and others that would bring in HUPD, adding that police involvement should not be a requisite to obtaining medical help.

“If students are not comfortable with it, they should have the clear option to just not have to interact with the police,” Abdalla said. “Just disentangle HUPD with medical services.”

The external review into HUPD cited several examples of police responding to calls for medical services, an issue it suggests “may not require the response of an armed law enforcement officer.”

“It may be possible for Harvard to develop more precise rules and protocols for when police respond to medical emergencies, or to eliminate police response to medical issues altogether,” the report reads.

These emergency response concerns are not limited to HUPD. The external review cited a 2018 incident of alleged police brutality against an unarmed Black student as a “turning point” in campus views on policing. Harvard University Health Services was criticized for referring callers concerned about a student’s mental health to the Cambridge Police Department. CPD officers tackled the student and struck him in the head and abdomen.

Jarrett M. Drake ’23, a proctor, said Harvard should prioritize investments into non-police response, rather than funding HUPD-run initiatives. Drake said the University’s mental health programs are “under-resourced,” citing long wait times students face to get an appointment with the University’s Counseling and Mental Health Services.

“What is the limitation on the imagination at Harvard?” Drake said. “Law enforcement agencies have mastered the art of making themselves seem to be the only viable option for anything.”

Clay has already addressed other recommendations raised by the external review. In an interview, he discussed several HUPD initiatives, including revamped officer training.

Clay said he has overhauled the department’s training procedures, expanding beyond state-mandated programs to sessions focusing on empathy, de-escalation strategies, and emotional intelligence. Members of the department attended a training session earlier this month on “empathy and healing,” according to Clay. He said the trainings were provided by non-police vendors, representing a unique opportunity to “step outside of our circles.”

These changes to HUPD training practices are in line with the report’s recommendations — including one that suggested “training on the particular emotional needs and mental health challenges of young adults,” among other possible improvements to the department’s approach to training.

Two Harvard University Police officers stand in the Smith Center.
Two Harvard University Police officers stand in the Smith Center. By Angela Dela Cruz

Yalile J. Suriel, a professor at the University of Minnesota, wrote in an email that efforts around empathy training have been part of police reform for decades, but have not substantively changed how departments operate.

“The question Harvard seems to be facing now is how exactly does this initiative around empathy and emotional intelligence differ from the past and how exactly will it be implemented?” Suriel wrote.

Francis X. Hartmann, a criminal justice expert at the Harvard Kennedy School praised Clay’s reform efforts, saying his focus on emotional intelligence is “the right direction.” Hartmann said Clay would be “a pace-setter” in “trying to even have that conversation introduced” into policing.

‘Lack of Transparency’

Clay’s flagship pledge has been to lead HUPD with greater transparency and communication.

One of Clay’s first meetings as chief was with faculty members and tutors at Mather House, who requested that the department remove a HUPD substation attached to a dormitory. Students had long complained about the facility’s presence, citing feelings of intimidation.

With the appointment of a new chief, Faculty Deans Amala Mahadevan and L. “Maha” Mahadevan saw an opportunity for change: They presented students’ concerns to Clay in a fall 2021 meeting. After examining the substation’s activity, Clay found that officers were not using it enough to justify keeping it open given the complaints.

“If the residents don’t feel comfortable with it, then by all means, let’s find a better solution,” Clay said. “That was solely my decision on that one.”

Clay ordered the substation’s closure in February, subsequently increasing HUPD patrols around Mather House to maintain police visibility in the area.

The Harvard University Police Department said it would close its Mather House substation in February
The Harvard University Police Department said it would close its Mather House substation in February By Angela Dela Cruz

Pryor, a self-described police abolitionist, said the substation’s closure represented a “huge victory” for students, but she said she remained skeptical of Clay’s overall reform efforts.

“He is trying to create a HUPD that is less vulnerable to criticism, that is less vulnerable to changes that will actually take real power away from it,” Pryor said.

Clay also said a crucial element to greater department accountability has been a closer relationship with Harvard Human Resources. The department now forwards all internal affairs reports to HR, Clay said, and has incorporated it into its use of force review process.

“Nothing inside of the department is done just within our walls,” Clay said. “We give everything to Harvard HR because we are employees of the University. I’m not sure if that was done before, but I know going forward, that’s the way it’s going to be done now.”

Although the reports no longer stay within the department’s walls, they remain internal to the University. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said HR does not provide sufficient accountability.

“I would disagree with their definition of in-house, if they’re sharing information with other departments within the University, but not with students,” Silverman said. “That’s not the type of transparency that we should be advocating for.”

Instead, Silverman said, the department should be doing more to disclose information to the public.

Unlike municipal police forces, HUPD is not subject to state public records laws, meaning that the department does not have to turn over official incident reports or other documents requested by the public.

Joseph described a series of difficulties in obtaining information from HUPD and Harvard administrators about the incident. The day after it took place, she emailed Catalano, the longtime HUPD public information officer, seeking access to the report. He denied her request.

“The Harvard University Police Department is a private police agency and therefore the reports are not public documents,” Catalano wrote in an email to Joseph that was provided to The Crimson. “We release reports in very limited circumstances, almost exclusively for insurance purposes, and do not provide copies of reports for person’s records. We are not going to release a copy of this report.”

Yet, Kirkland House’s resident dean, Leslie Rith-Najarian, was able to obtain a copy of the report, according to Joseph, and referenced it during a conversation with Joseph following the incident.

Joseph said Rith-Najarian communicated with her in an inappropriate manner about the incident and did not provide information about what took place to faculty deans or tutors — some of whom Joseph said reached out to her only because she tweeted about the incident.

Rith-Najarian, who is not returning to Kirkland in the fall, did not respond to requests for comment about the incident.

Joseph said the department’s policy against granting students access to police reports represents “a blatant lack of transparency.”

“Is your purpose not to protect and defend the students of this university?” Joseph said. “And if you aren’t accountable to the students here, then who the fuck are you accountable to?”

In an interview, Clay said HUPD will not change its disclosure practices.

“I think our primary goal is to protect the identity and the privacy of some of the folks that are involved in the incidents that we investigate,” he said. “It’s not for me to go out and change it and just leave open reports or investigations out there for public review.”

The Harvard University Police Department's headquarters are located on Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge.
The Harvard University Police Department's headquarters are located on Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge. By Julian J. Giordano

The Crimson sued HUPD in 2003, arguing that the department should be subject to state public records laws, which require the disclosure of police reports upon request. But the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2006 that the department’s records are not subject to the same disclosure requirements as municipal forces because HUPD is a private entity. Campus police forces in some other states — such as the Yale Police Department — are required to abide by public records laws.

Catalano said the department provides more detail in its reports than municipal police departments, which it would not be able to do if the reports were public.

“A lot of our reports contain really confidential information about students who experience alcohol or substance abuse, mental health issues, going through traumatic potential self-harm,” Catalano said. “We’d be forced to write less reports or even less detailed reports, and I don’t know if that is in the best interest of everyone involved.”

But Silverman said HUPD can make incident reports available to the public while still protecting sensitive information.

“You can address that concern by allowing for certain information to be withheld or for certain redactions to be made, similar to how that can occur under our state’s public records law,” Silverman said. “They can continue to write very detailed reports.”

Disclosures or not, some students say they should be more involved in the effort of police reform. The HUPD Advisory Board has just one undergraduate student: Harris, who graduated Thursday.

“I always thought that there should have been more student voices on the Advisory Board,” Harris said.

“I don’t think we can ever be satisfied until we have a department that makes everyone feel safe, regardless of their background,” he added.

—Staff writer Sarah Girma can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @SarahGirma_.

—Staff writer Brandon L. Kingdollar can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @newskingdollar

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