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Francis D. “Bud” Riley, Harvard’s police chief of 25 years, just announced his retirement. An external review of the department he will leave behind — arguably no better than he found it — is underway. But it’s not enough — or really it’s too much. The time has come for a serious conversation about whether we really need a campus police force at all.
For decades instances of police brutality have sparked calls for police reform and increased accountability; however, activists are now demanding more sweeping changes, such as defunding and abolishing police forces, that seek to reduce the power of police and address more fundamental issues within the police system. These calls have only grown louder on our campus since last week when HUPD officers were spotted in Boston assisting the Boston Police Department at a protest over George Floyd’s murder and police brutality.
This backlash has already sparked significant changes to HUPD. Riley, who from his first year on the job pledged to reform the department’s racist reputation, announced he would step down after a bruising year, during which 21 current and former officers spoke to The Crimson about rampant racism, sexism, and alleged favoritism within the force. The University also announced an independent review of the department’s policing procedures — an improvement from the department’s ongoing internal review led by Riley, who HUPD officers cited as the source of the hostile work environment the review sought to assess.
But many more problems remain.
Policing is problematic not just in its often violent and discriminatory practice, but also in theory; the issue is not a few rotten apples, but of a rotten tree. By responding to the symptoms of pervasive social inequities, not the causes, policing perpetuates a cycle of violence, incarceration, and poverty.
Several groups on campus have already called for the elimination of HUPD — particularly the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign and the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition. We thank them for their moral foresight, courage, and leadership.
HUPD operates more or less like any regular police force and unsurprisingly is plagued by the same issues protested globally. Its officers receive the same academy training as Cambridge officers. They are authorized to police Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston. The only differences between HUPD and any other city police force? First, jurisdiction: HUPD officers have priority in responding to nearly all crime on Harvard’s property. And second, transparency: As a private police force, HUPD is required to release less comprehensive public records than municipal police forces. Instead, each incident to which HUPD is deployed is reduced to a one-liner in their daily police log, the department’s only public record. So HUPD isn’t just another city police force; in some ways, it’s just a worse one Harvard pays for.
Some readers might wonder why we can't simply reform our police department. Can't we just dismiss Anthony T. Carvello and other officers accused of using excessive force? Push for more transparency? Wouldn't thorough racial-bias training and stricter guidelines suffice?
No. For one, the past few months have taught us that “reform” can become a synonym for opaque internal reviews — at times headed by those they should be investigating — that yield no tangible results. And on a national level, there is evidence that such reforms, like requiring police to wear body cameras, do not actually decrease police violence. The “blue wall of silence” — the informal rule among police officers to not report on a colleague's wrongdoing — complicates real change taking root within the system. And the widespread examples of police brutality observed in response to recent protests against police brutality illustrate how deep the problem goes.
The overwhelming majority of HUPD’s work — 95 percent of its caseload — deals with property crimes. To replace it, the University should instead opt for a pared-down security team modeled on Securitas guards around campus already, with first responders, other University officials, and social workers responsible for much of the current work of HUPD officers. This organization cannot be born of the current police force. The institutional rot goes too deep; no training or new figurehead will change it.
Poverty, homelessness, and pervasive racial bias in perceptions of criminality shape who is incarcerated in the U.S. Yet instead of addressing the root causes of crime with sympathy, we funnel resources into violent and discriminatory policing. From the current criminalization of poverty to America’s history of heavily racist drug legislation our federal government appears intent on using the police force to actively harm and imprison the communities it ought to be helping. Our University seems to be doing the same.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, and increasingly it isn’t. Camden, New Jersey dissolved its police force seven years ago and saw crime nearly halved. A veto-proof majority on the Minneapolis City Council announced its intention to disband the police department, pledging to explore alternative institutional options for public safety. Harvard could readily do the same.
And while there are many unanswered questions about how to implement such a policy at a national level, we are convinced that Harvard — with its extremely low violent crime rate — offers a fertile ground to explore and promote alternative ways to keep our communities safe. This might include redirecting HUPD funds to better the availability of mental health care or to address Cambridge’s widespread homelessness in a way that doesn’t involve having a police force assault those experiencing it.
Compassionate, sustainable relationships between people and the law are not bred from violence and fear. They come from a shared sense of ownership over the community and from mutual trust and respect. A criminal enforcement system like policing, with no such commitment, lacking the trust of many, and with deep, clear institutional blight, is neither compassionate nor sustainable. And it has no place on our campus.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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