Who Watches the Watchers?

Harvard hired SSI's sentries to plug security holes. It's been a success - but questions remain.

It was never a question of whether, but always a question of when.

For the University, hiring a private company to protect their undergraduate Houses made too much sense. With their proprietary--wholly owned--guard force, the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) couldn't always plug security holes. Union regulations rendered guard schedules inflexible.

A private company, on the other hand, would provide dozens of more guards for a lot less cost. And no union quibbles would get in the way.

The owned and operated guard force protested, but not too much. Many of its members wanted out of their contracts. Last summer, the University and the Harvard guards agreed on a compromise: the proprietary guards would protect the Yard, and the University would buy out the contract of several veterans. The Houses would be out-sourced.

So upper-class students moved in last fall under the eyes of several dozen Security Systems Inc. (SSI) employees. Eight months later, the University is hesitant to call the transformation a total success.

SSI guard turnover has been high--many campus locations don't have the same face watching the doors week-to-week. HUPD dispatchers often have trouble contacting guards on the security radio frequency, and police officers whisper questions about SSI's competence.

More seriously, in April, an SSI guard in DeWolfe was charged with assaulting a student. Another guard was dismissed, according to a University official, for "gross incompetence."

Michael G. Lichten, the director of physical resources for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, admits that there have been some "difficulties" with SSI. But, he says, "It's a very tough labor market generally and we had to make the change very quickly and [SSI was] able to do it."

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