A group of undergraduates has claimed responsibility for altering a Harvard University Police Department poster of a burglary suspect, saying that they did so to protest racism.
"We created the parody to illuminate the racist implications of the police's hurtfully ambiguous poster featuring a subject whose only distinguishing details were absurdly broad," the group, which calls itself Harvard Undergraduates Pointing out Discrimination, wrote in an open letter to Harvard Police Chief Paul E. Johnson.
The letter, copies of which were delivered to The Crimson, is unsigned "in order to prevent Police harassment," it said.
The Harvard police distributed the original version of the suspect poster in response to a string of recent burglaries at Matthews Hall. Within a week, an altered version of the poster appeared across campus, in which the drawing of the suspect was replaced by a caricature of a black male and the words "Afro-American" were added to the suspect's description. All the other information was the same.
In a brief telephone interview yesterday, Chief Johnson defended the original poster, denied that it was racist and dismissed the group's letter as "kind of stupid."
"I'm not going to get into a slugging match with these people," Johnson said of the allegations of racism within the Harvard police. "If these people have any concerns with this department, I welcome them to come in and discuss our police procedures."
The one-page, single-spaced typed letter said that the group used the illustration for the word "afro" from the popular Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.
"This fact is important because racism exists in many insidious sites, from the Police poster reinscribing the myth of the criminal black male to common dictionary representations of ethnicity (see also the illustrations for 'chopsticks,' 'turban' and 'mortarboard' if you are ready to be offended)," the letter said.
The letter continued: "For example, one of our members, a black male undergraduate, has been asked to show his ID card by fellow fearful students every time he has walked alone inside a freshman dorm this year. This is the quiet side of racism that the inexcusably ambiguously Police poster fosters..."
Johnson said that the Harvard police system for producing such posters is standard operating procedure for all law enforcement agencies and that he has not received any such negative feedback about it in the past.
"The system we used is used by every major law enforcement agency in this country and internationally," Johnson said. "The picture, the composite, comes from the information provided by the witness. It's standard operation procedure. To make anything else out of it is ridiculous."
Johnson said that the system the Harvard police uses to produce composites has been very successful in the past. "Often when we make an arrest we find that there's a remarkable resemblance between the culprit and the composite," he said.
Kristal O'Bryant, chair of Harvard's Black Students' Association, also received a copy of the group's letter. O'Bryant could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 yesterday condemned the group's action, saying that altering the poster infringed upon public safety.
"As a simple matter of public safety, I have to go back to ground zero. There is someone that has been endangering students and I can't imagine what useful purpose could be served by creating confusion," Lewis said in an interview.
Valerie J. MacMillan contributed to the reporting of this story.