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Harvard advised to name ombudsman

Would be on-campus liaison on public safety

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / April 25, 2009
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An independent committee recommended yesterday 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 last August after some black students and faculty complained of unfair treatment by the predominantly white police force, asserted in an 81-page report that more work needs to be done to create a welcoming, safe, and open environment on the campus.

The responsibility, though, lies with the community as well as the private police force, said the report, the first comprehensive review of the department in more than a decade. The committee, whose main responsibility was to issue guidelines on improving 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 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."

Sangu Delle, president of the Harvard Black Men's Forum, praised the report's recommendations, especially the creation of a universitywide public safety advisory committee that would meet with police regularly.

"Instead of just responding to problems, it will proactively try to prevent problems from happening," Delle said.

The Globe reported in 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 university officials that 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 participants for their Harvard identifications and questioned 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 walked across Harvard Yard to his office because they mistook him for a black robbery suspect.

The report noted that controversial police actions may result from community complaints that are based on intolerance or stereotyping. "HUPD actions may reflect whatever values lie within the community at large as well as those that are held within HUPD," it said.

Several police officers told the committee that they would welcome more training to better understand the perspectives of diverse students, as well as recognize their own potential biases.

To create more accountability and transparency when things go wrong, the report said Harvard should appoint an independent ombudsman who would review investigations into complaints against officers. The ombudsman would report to the president's office and help university leaders assess progress made under yesterday's report.

The report recommended that Harvard require all students, staff, and faculty who are stopped by police to be prepared to produce Harvard identification upon request. Officers, too, should be required to produce business cards with their names and a police department phone number to call in case someone felt they had been unfairly stopped.

The report also suggested police begin cultivating relationships with students during freshman orientation and help students move into their dorms, and encouraged more campus groups to reach out to officers, inviting them to meetings or house dinners. The Black Men's Forum recently held a football game with police to help students and officers connect.

Faust said in an e-mail to university and student leaders yesterday that she had 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.

Matthew Sundquist, former president of the Harvard Undergraduate Council who served on the committee, said he believes that many of the panel's recommendations could quickly be implemented.

"It's fairly policy heavy, so a lot of our suggestions don't require much further debate," Sundquist said.

Campus police spokesman Steven Catalano said in a statement that the department 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.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.