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Harvard Police Department Suspends Officer Who Was Called Homophobic Slur

A Harvard University Police Department investigation found that one officer called another officer a homophobic slur.
A Harvard University Police Department investigation found that one officer called another officer a homophobic slur. By Shera S. Avi-Yonah
By Alexandra A. Chaidez and Ema R. Schumer, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: Oct. 2, 2019 at 7:16 a.m.

The Harvard University Police Department suspended an officer Wednesday for one week without pay after an investigation found he physically assaulted another officer who called him a homophobic slur, according to representatives from the Harvard University Police Association union.

During a dispute in the HUPD parking lot roughly four years ago, officers Josiah Christian and Thomas F. Karns engaged in a physical altercation after Karns allegedly called Christian, a black officer, a “f----t n----r,” according to union officials who represent Christian. HUPD Deputy Chief Michael Giacoppo launched an internal investigation into the incident this past summer after another officer brought it to the attention of management.

During the investigation, Karns — a detective — disputed that he called Christian the n-word; the investigation concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove that Karns had used the n-word, according to HUPA President Michael J. Allen and HUPA Vice President Joseph E. Steverman. The investigation, however, found that Karns had used the word “f----t,” according to Allen and Steverman. As representatives of Christian’s union, HUPA leaders were notified of the inquiry and of the investigation’s findings.

Karns did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano declined to comment on the case.

“It is both the policy of the HUPD and the University not to comment on personnel matters,” Catalano said.

Allen and Steverman allege that HUPD officials — including HUPD Chief Francis “Bud” D. Riley — who were present in a meeting about the investigation said at the time that they believe Christian was called both the homophobic slur and the racist slur. Evidence found in the investigation, however, could not ultimately prove that Karns said the racist slur.

Catalano denied that HUPD leaders ever told Christian that they believed Karns used both slurs.

"The allegation that HUPD officials believe that the offensive words were used and shared that belief with the union leadership is false,” Catalano said. “We are unable to provide more specifics because we do not comment on personnel matters as a matter of policy."

At the conclusion of the investigation, HUPD Chief Francis “Bud” D. Riley suspended Christian for seven days without pay.

Allen and Steverman said that HUPD told them Karns would face punishment, but would not be terminated. But, HUPD did not tell them what punishment Karns would face because Karns is not a current member of the union, which only represents patrol officers.

Christian did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The executive board of HUPA — which includes Allen, Steverman, Treasurer William Connell, and Secretary Michael Davenport — condemned Christian’s suspension in a written statement to The Crimson Friday. They wrote that they are “saddened and discouraged” by the decision not to terminate Karns’s employment.

The board members also called the punishment “egregious.”

“The lack of respect/concern shown to Officer Christian and all minority, gay and lesbian, and members of the Harvard University Police Department is disheartening to say the least,” the board wrote.

HUPD generally initiates an internal investigation once a potential violation of department policies comes to the attention of management, according to Catalano. An investigator — who in more significant investigations is a deputy chief or lieutenant — conducts a formal inquiry and writes a report of their findings. In that report, the investigator decides whether to sustain any allegations.

Giacoppo started reaching out to officers about the incident between Christian and Karns on or before July 18, according to internal emails obtained by The Crimson. Christian submitted his own memo — a copy of which The Crimson obtained — to Giacoppo alleging that the incident took place in a HUPD garage “approximately 4/5 years ago.”

Christian wrote that Karns approached his vehicle and told him that he had obstructed Karns’s path to pull out of the garage. Christian alleged in his memo that he moved his vehicle to allow for Karns to exit and unsuccessfully urged Karns to move away.

Karns then refused to leave, and Christian got out of his vehicle to confront Karns, according to the memo. Christian wrote that the two were “yelling” and “nose to nose with each other” until Christian started walking away. After further arguing, Christian moved toward Karns and alleged that Karns then said, “Fuck you, f----t n----r.”

Christian wrote that the interaction then became physical.

“Immediately after hearing this derogatory statement from Tom [Karns], the verbal altercation quickly became physical,” Christian wrote. “Both Tom and I were holding onto each other and pushing each other.”

Bystanding officers then intervened and pulled Christian and Karns off of each other, Christian wrote.

The union plans to go through a grievance procedure to retrieve Christian’s seven days of pay, according to Allen and Steverman.

At the conclusion of their statement, the union’s executive board urged Harvard affiliates to make their feelings about the incident known.

“We hope the Harvard community whether or not you are a minority, part of the LGBTQ community, students, faculty, investors, employees and Harvard Alumni share in our deep disappointment in the direction the Harvard University Police Department Administration took with the facts presented to them regarding this incident,” the statement reads.

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.

—Staff writer Ema R. Schumer can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emaschumer.

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