Violent Crime at Harvard Rises

Police attribute increase to rise in reporting, different crime categories

Breaking with national trends, Harvard’s violent crime rate shot up 38 percent last year, according to annual crime statistics released by the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) in August.

Despite a drop in total crimes on campus and a substantial decrease in burglaries in 2004, violent crime—which consists of sex offenses, robberies, and aggravated assault—has risen from a total of 24 crimes in 2003 to 33 in 2004.

Violent crime has been steadily decreasing nationwide since 1994, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Harvard’s increase in violent crime is mainly due to the spike in sex offenses reported to the police, which has risen over the last two years, from 13 to 19 confidential reports filed and an increase in the number of formal reports filed from three to 10.

“A 38 percent increase does concern us, but if you factor in the increase in the sex offenses reported, which is an under-reported crime, we’re not as concerned about that much of an increase,” said Steven G. Catalano, HUPD’s spokesman. “What it tells us is that 13 additional victims got help last year. We will take a 38 percent increase in our violent crime rate, if it means 13 additional victims received the help they required.”

Jennifer B. Robinson, assistant professor in Northeastern University’s College of Criminal Justice, said the low absolute figures for sex offenses indicate that the increase may not constitute a trend.

“I’m not trying to downplay the nature of these crimes by any means—any increase is one that is justifiably concerning,” Robinson said. “If you’re talking about an increase from 3 to 10, percentage-wise it’s huge, but numerically, it’s not. That just might be a blip on the radar screen. So its sounds like there could be an increase because it’s difficult to tell.”

FROM CAMPUS TO CAMPUS

The statistics reveal that robberies and burglaries have abated on campus. Though burglaries had previously been on the rise, total burglaries fell to 372 last year from 451 in 2003. And campus robberies, after remaining steady at two in 2002 and in 2003, dipped to zero last year.

Public robberies—those committed off-campus but near Harvard property—also declined, from 23 in 2002 and in 2003, to 17 last year.

But even with the dip, reported burglaries at Harvard remain significantly higher than those reported in surrounding colleges. While Harvard’s numbers have hovered around 400 burglaries per year, Boston University reported 80 burglaries in 2003 and 57 in 2002.

Yale University students, who often voice safety concerns regarding crime on their New Haven, Conn. campus, reported only 65 burglaries in 2001, 42 in 2002, and 63 in 2003.

Catalano said this disparity is an issue of classification. Although the Clery Act requires police departments to report their crime statistics annually to the federal government, it does not enforce a uniform system for classifying the crimes.

Catalano said that HUPD includes the number of larcenies the campus sees each year under the burglary category, while other universities may not report their larcenies at all. A burglary implies forced entry—breaking and entering—into private property in order to commit a crime, while larcenies include situations where items are stolen from an unlocked room. The Clery Act does not require schools to report the number of larcenies, rather, there is only a burglary category.

“I believe our specific burglary rate is higher than other college campuses in the area because we feel we’re doing a strict interpretation of the burglary definition,” Catalano said. “We have pretty high standards...We have nothing to hide.”

Robinson, the Northeastern professor, said she is not surprised that Harvard’s burglary numbers significantly surpass other campuses’ numbers.

“To me those numbers don’t sound extremely high when you consider how many opportunities there are for crime on the Harvard campus,” Robinson said. “Simple accounting differences can make a difference. We see those same data recording problems on the national level.”

But Yale University Police Department spokesman Walter Northrop confirmed that Yale’s statistics follow the definition given by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report, in which larcenies are classified under the burglary category.

And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—which reported only 108 burglaries in 2004, up from 101 in 2003 and 34 in 2002—claims to include larcenies of unforced entry into unlocked areas under the burglary category.

But comparing across schools may be a fruitless endeavor, Catalano said.

“Every school operates in an individual context,” he said. “I always hesitate when people start to compare schools because every school is different. We don’t wait for a final tally at the end of the year. If we see a spike, we’re going to respond to that. We’re conducting crime analysis and responding accordingly on an ongoing basis.”

THE NUMBERS GAME

Statistics show a tripling in drug violations reported to the Administrative Board. The numbers progressed from two in 2002 to four in 2003 to 12 last year. Secretary of the Ad Board John “Jay” Ellison, who is also assistant dean of the College, said that although 12 instances were reported to the Ad Board, not all the cases were investigated.

“Why there was a spike in incidents that were reported, I have no idea,” Ellison wrote in an e-mail. “There was no policy in place to crack down on any incidents but we have made a more concerted effort to be consistent in our reporting practices.”

As far as drug arrests, HUPD made eight last year on campus, but only two of those eight involved the arrest of a Harvard student.

Although the release of all these statistics is mandated by law, Catalano said these numbers allow students to make reasoned judgments concerning crime on campus for themselves.

“The release of these numbers puts things in context on a campus such as this, where there are various forms of communication—one or two isolated issues could really make it seem like there is a greater problem,” Catalano added. “We’re a transparent department. We demonstrate that transparency by including our larceny numbers. It allows people to make informed decisions about the true amount of crime on campus.”

—Staff writer Robin M. Peguero can be reached at peguero@fas.harvard.edu.