Saturday, 2:15 PM
Panel recommends Harvard ombudsman to bridge police, campus 'schism'
By Tracy Jan, Globe Staff
An independent committee recommended today that Harvard University create a public-safety ombudsman and take other steps to mend the at-times rocky relationship between the campus police force and the diverse community it patrols.
The committee, appointed by Harvard President Drew Faust in August after some black students and staff complained of racial profiling by the predominantly white police force, said in an 81-page report that more work needs to be done to create a welcoming, safe, and open environment for the Harvard community.
The responsibility, though, lies with both the private force as well as the university community, the report said. The committee, whose main responsibility was to issue guidelines that would improve police relations, did not determine whether racial profiling had occurred in previous incidents.
“To some extent, there’s this schism,” said Ralph Martin, the former Suffolk County district attorney who headed the six-member review committee. “If you don’t have consistent and structured ways to create those relationships, you can have elements of distrust, elements of misunderstanding that cloud people’s perceptions. We see this report as a way to break through some of those elements.”
The Globe reported last August that a number of black students and faculty have complained for years that they felt unfairly treated by campus police.
That month, a black Boston high school student working at Harvard told school officials a white officer had pointed a gun at him while he was cutting a lock off his bicycle because the key had broken. A second officer stood by and spoke to him harshly, said officials familiar with the case.
In spring 2007, officers interrupted a university sanctioned field day sponsored by two black student groups to ask the young men and women for their Harvard identifications and whether they had permission to be there. The officers were responding to a complaint from a fellow student of trespassers on the Radcliffe Quad.
And in 2004, police stopped S. Allen Counter, a prominent neuroscience professor, as he was walking to his office across Harvard Yard because they mistook him for a black robbery suspect.
The report noted that police actions “may reflect whatever values lie within the community at large as well as those that are held within the Harvard University Police Department. ... HUPD may unknowingly respond to a complaint from the community prompted by stereotyping or intolerance.”
Faust said in an e-mail to university and student leaders today that she has asked Provost Steven Hyman and Executive Vice President Ed Forst to review each recommendation in the coming weeks to determine which ones would be implemented. She said she hopes to initiate a “comprehensive response” to the report by the start of the next school year.
“Only through improved communication between the HUPD and the members of the Harvard community, through mutual respect, and through a willingness to acknowledge and carry out our own individual obligations can we as a university accomplish the goal of creating a campus that is safe and welcoming for all students, faculty, staff, and visitors,” Faust wrote.
The committee issued a broad range of recommendations to create more accountability and transparency when things go wrong. Among them:
-- Appoint an independent public safety ombudsman to help university leaders assess progress made under the report. The ombudsman, who would report to the president’s office, would review results of investigations into complaints against officers if other procedures had been exhausted.
-- Create a university-wide public safety advisory committee made up of faculty, administrators, students, and staff that would meet quarterly with the police department to discuss public safety issues and provide feedback to the department. The committee should receive data about incidents, police stops, and other interventions to determine how well the police department communicates with various campus groups.
-- Assign individual officers to develop and maintain relationships with campus groups so students and faculty have a place to turn with their concerns.
-- Expand responsibilities of the department's diversity and community liaison officer beyond that one person.
Campus police spokesman Steven Catalano said in a written statement that the department received the report’s recommendations and looks forward to working with the university community to improve relations.
“The Harvard University Police Department has made great strides in its outreach efforts and this report reinforces the need for greater outreach and communication with students, faculty, and staff of the university,” Catalano said.