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SEAS Cancels Class on Controversial Policing Strategy After Student Petition

The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences canceled a new course this semester focused on police counterinsurgency tactics after a widespread petition called for its withdrawal.
The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences canceled a new course this semester focused on police counterinsurgency tactics after a widespread petition called for its withdrawal. By Mia B. Frothingham
By Natalie L. Kahn and Simon J. Levien, Crimson Staff Writers

The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences canceled a new course this semester focused on police counterinsurgency tactics after a widespread petition called for its withdrawal, SEAS Dean Francis J. Doyle III wrote in an email to school affiliates Monday.

SEAS bioengineering professor Kevin K. “Kit” Parker introduced Engineering Sciences 298R: “Data Fusion in Complex Systems: A Case Study” as a one-time opportunity to study the use of Counter-Criminal Continuum policing, or C3, by the police department in Springfield, Mass.

The law enforcement method — which Parker has conducted research into since at least 2012 — is based on military counterinsurgency tactics and has sparked controversy in Springfield. It involves community meetings to brainstorm neighborhood solutions to reduce gang violence and raise awareness about reporting suspicious activity through a team of resident “street leaders,” according to The New York Times.

Several student organizations began circulating a petition Sunday demanding the course be reviewed and withdrawn from the catalog. As of Monday night, the petition has more than 500 signatories including Harvard affiliates, local residents, and students and academics across the U.S.

In the petition, SEAS students and Harvard affiliates expressed concern that the class does not “meet ethical obligations” in ensuring the research process does not harm subjects or violate their privacy. The petition also argued that the course does not address the ways in which policing policies, including C3, have disproportionately affected minorities.

The petition called for investigations into the potential harms of C3 policing and a “full independent, third-party review” of Parker’s connections to C3 and his proposed research.

In his email to SEAS affiliates, Doyle wrote that he was aware of concerns about the “design and pedagogy of the proposed course” and that the course would not be offered as planned.

Doyle also wrote that in the current approval process, SEAS courses are “vetted” to align with the school’s “mission, vision, and values” before being added to the course catalog.

“During the coming days, the SEAS leadership will undertake a review of our course approval policies and procedures to determine if there are opportunities to further strengthen that system,” Doyle wrote.

SEAS spokesperson Paul Karoff declined to comment beyond Doyle’s statement.

Ciana Biasi-Smiley ’21, a signatory on the petition and Springfield native, said she found the premise of the course “deeply disturbing.”

“Looking at the merits of this type of policing, when we already know that this type of policing creates more violence, is not a useful exercise in any way and just legitimizes a racist practice that kills Black and Brown kids,” she said.

Springfield Police did not respond to a request for comment.

Parker defended his syllabus in an emailed statement to The Crimson Monday night, noting the course relies only on publicly available information and that the primary goal of the course is not an examination of racial bias within the police.

“While racial disparities are of concern with us, and we are mindful of how they might impact the data, it is not the specific focus of this work,” he wrote. “If disparities do emerge, we will report them accordingly.”

The petition also cast doubt over the legitimacy of Parker’s expertise to teach a course centered around a case study on policing. Parker, a cell biology and tissue engineering researcher, does not have a degree in criminal justice, social science, or criminology.

Daphne A. Kaxiras ’21, Parker’s research assistant, wrote in an emailed statement that the course staff “acknowledge” their lack of expertise in social sciences.

“[We] would love to have people on board who have such experience and can help us make this project the best it can be,” she wrote.

In addition to challenging his research experience, graduate student organizations including Harvard Alliance Against Campus Cops and Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers alleged in the petition that Parker took money from Springfield Police for the course and argued that the police department’s cooperation with the course constitutes a conflict of interest.

Maya E. Woods-Arthur ’23, an organizer for petition co-signer Harvard Prison Divest Campaign, said police reform deserves to be studied, but found Parker’s personal ties to the C3 strategy unacceptable.

According to Marisa J. Borreggine, the vice president of HGSU-UAW, if the course were to be offered, students would be “unpaid labor” for a “personal interest project” evaluating C3 policing efficacy in Springfield as part of Parker’s personal collaboration with the police department.

Two Iraq War veterans, Matthew M. Cutone and Thomas K. Sarrouf proposed the C3 strategy in 2009, modeling it after United States Army Special Forces counterinsurgency tactics employed overseas.

Parker, who served in Afghanistan, offered a similar course in 2012 in which students evaluated the effectiveness of the new policing method and found it increased calls to police and arrests while decreasing litter and graffiti, the New York Times reported in 2012.

Nine years ago, Cutone — who registered a trademark on “C3 Policing” that year — worked alongside Parker on the first iteration of the class by test-running C3 in Springfield. The pair made an appearance on the TV show “60 Minutes,” in which Parker revealed he met Cutone at National Guard training in 2011.

University policy dictates that an individual may have a conflict of interest if there is a financial connection to a “related outside entity.” A related outside entity includes anyone who “may reasonably appear” to influence research, further including anyone who owns intellectual property involved in a faculty member’s research.

Parker denied any financial ties to the Springfield Police Department.

“I get nothing from this project financially,” he wrote. “Only the personal satisfaction of trying to contribute to an understanding of an impoverished community who has made some very courageous decisions about taking control of their fate from violent criminal gangs.”

Parker argued against canceling the course, noting that it is part and parcel of academic liberty.

“I expect Harvard to display the moral courage to support its faculty who endeavor to lead such projects....and their academic freedom,” he wrote.

—Staff writer Natalie L. Kahn can be reached at natalie.kahn@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @natalielkahn.

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at simon.levien@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.

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