HUPD Pares Down Campus Crime Logs

Citing privacy concerns, agency limits reports to criminal acts

The public police log of the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) has ceased to print the bulk of reports taken by campus officers, now listing only criminal incidents according to HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano.

Catalano said the change, which went into effect this week, grew out of concerns about student privacy, but others criticized them as a blow to transparency.

The daily log, which is required for all University police forces by Massachusetts law, previously included records of a wide variety of misdeeds which could not lead to criminal charges—from noise complaints and parking violations to reports of “suspicious activity.”

By contrast, the most recent log, for the week ending July 5 (see page 7), is made up exclusively of burglary and larceny reports. Those complaints which do not involve crimes will now be presented in aggregate statistical form at the start of the log, without detailed information on times, places or circumstances.

Boston attorney Harvey A. Silverglate, co-director of campus watchdog group the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the new format was unacceptable, calling a comprehensive police log—including police activities not relating to criminal acts—“an essential part of democracy.”

“In a democracy the governed are entitled to know what their public servants are doing,” he said.

The decision to change the log format hinges on conflicting interpretations of the 1991 state law requiring university police forces like HUPD to make such records publicly available.

The relevant section of the General Laws of Massachusetts (MGL) states that these forces “shall make, keep and maintain in a daily log...all responses to valid complaints received, crimes reported, the names, addresses of persons arrested and the charges against such persons arrested.”

Catalano said that HUPD believes “valid complaints” means “any complaint about criminal activity.”

But Silverglate objects to this interpretation.

“[‘Valid’] is certainly not a synonym for ‘criminal,’” he said. “It’s a common English word well-known to everyone.”

Silverglate added that he would take “valid complaints” to include “a whole variety of human interactions” beyond the criminal, such as noise complaints.

Catalano said that HUPD’s narrower reading is also consistent with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, a federal law predating the MGL provision. The 1990 Clery Act, which has been amended twice, requires police and security forces to publish statistics related to specific campus crimes. It does not mandate either detailed accounts of campus crimes or any public record of non-criminal incidents involving campus police.

Catalano said the change in content was prompted by concerns raised this spring by Harvard administrators after the log included accounts of two attempted suicides by students.

“We had listed the building and we had listed the incident and there was concern that our listing of the incident was going to cause further trauma for the students involved,” he said. “It’s a personal matter.”

The choice to exclude all non-criminal reports—rather than only those of sensitive incidents like this spring’s attempted suicides—was motivated by a desire for consistency, he said.

“We wanted to avoid the appearance of picking and choosing what we were going to report,” he said.

But Silverglate called the new format unprofessional.

A more thorough approach is “how real police report on a log,” he said.

“You would think that if they’re really professional they would act like real police officers.”

Recent police logs from private Massachusetts colleges and universities including MIT, Wellesley, Boston University and Amherst show that they follow standards similar to that which HUPD had used up until its most recent log. Those schools’ logs list records of non-criminal incidents ranging from reports of suspicious persons to car accidents.

The MIT log does open with a disclaimer notifying readers that medical transports and false alarms are omitted, but is still more comprehensive than the new HUPD version.

Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04 said he was dismayed by this week’s slimmer-than-usual offering from HUPD.

“It seems like there’s something to hide,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like they’re putting the safety and peace of mind of the community first.”

He added that he was “surprised, because the police department generally has a very good reputation of openness and honesty.”

But Chopra worried that the decision signalled worse things to come.

“If this is an overall tendency to scale back information about crime to avoid public scrutiny, that’s a very bad thing,” he said.

—Rafe H. Kinsey, Heloisa Nogueira and Lara Pedrini contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at vozick@fas.harvard.edu.