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The Harvard Class Where Undergrads Play Police

By Monica C Nesselbush
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

This past week, the Harvard community witnessed the rightful cancelation of Kevin K. “Kit” Parker’s course, Engineering Sciences 298R: “Data Fusion in Complex Systems: A Case Study.” The course planned to have undergraduates examine the “efficacy” of policing criminal activity in Springfield, Mass. using a policing tactic modeled after how troops in America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan conducted counterinsurgency.

Examining Springfield’s Counter Criminal Continuum Policing program — C3 for short — has become something of a pet project for Parker, a bioengineering professor. A personal connection helps explain why.

Parker and Matthew M. Cutone, the state trooper that trademarked C3, connected over the idea of bringing wartime tactics home in 2011 while in the same National Guard training unit. The “army buddies,” as Parker puts it, have had a working relationship for over a decade, which has included collaborating on a Harvard course in 2012.

During this 2012 class — the canceled course’s predecessor — undergraduates developed intelligence collection software that Springfield cops used to create a database of suspected gang members to target based on information including an individual’s tattoos. Cutone, the cop who invented the C3 strategy, gave undergraduates a tour of Springfield as a part of the course to determine if, after their intervention, “any of the symptoms of that failed community had been alleviated,” according to the 60 Minutes interview on the project Parker used to promote this year’s failed iteration of the course.

To be clear, thinking critically about police tactics is not inherently wrong. Responsibly studying difficult and controversial topics matters, perhaps more so for their difficulty. However, Parker’s approach and personal ties to C3’s creator deeply alarm us.

Parker’s course was never chiefly about data; rather, it seems clear that ES 298R was meant to serve as a “laboratory,” as he puts it, for justifying the use of military tactics in Springfield, Mass.

Parker has indicated support for C3: Cutone, its creator, says Parker's eyes lit up upon hearing the idea. In a 2013 interview, Parker described insurgents in Afghanistan and “gangs in the inner city” as operating “off the same business model,” and expressed confidence that military counterinsurgency belongs in U.S. policing. On the subject, Parker, a veteran, said “I do want to win one war in my life. I didn't fight in Iraq, I fought in Afghanistan. I want to win one counterinsurgency.” To do so, the bioengineering professor has made the majority-minority neighborhood of Springfield his battleground and enlisted Harvard undergraduates as foot soldiers.

Cutone, Parker’s decade-old friend and collaborator, appears to profit off of C3 policing. In addition to creating the tactic, Cutone runs a consulting company that exports it, lending weight to the question of whether Parker has improper financial connections to C3, which Parker denies, raised in the petition that led to ES 298R’s cancelation. Publicity-driven incentives could have also led the bioengineering professor to revisit his interest in policing. The last time Parker taught his C3 policing course (which, again, allowed untrained undergraduates to direct police operations), a flurry of press followed: a 60 Minutes interview, a profile in Nature, and a New York Times piece, all of which he used to promote this year’s botched iteration of the course.

Yet our issues with the course go well beyond the instructor’s background and potential conflicts of interest. ES 298R was also a course about policing that declined to wrestle with the inherent racial dynamics of its field of study; a course that, though predicated on studying the institution that helped unleash months-long protests over the deadly mistreatment of minorities, took the time to make clear that racial disparities were not the “focus” of its work.

One cannot sideline ethics for the sake of teaching a data-driven course, nor, by the use of buzzwords like “data-driven” alone, banish the racial biases that permeate debates about policing and infect police data. Parker’s own attempt to teach ES 298R with an emphasis on “criminal gangs” and “gang activity” without proper acknowledgement of the racial character and history of such terms (what makes one group a gang and another a right-wing militia?) is a brutal display of ignorance. Objective analysis that ignores historical and social backdrop is hardly objective.

You cannot have a class on policing without conversation on race — especially not one based in a majority-minority city like Springfield, where only 29 percent of residents self-identify as white. We know that the American police system is racist. Its practices disproportionately target Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities in the United States; tactics like stop-and-frisk have even codified this terrorizing. Sidelining these disparities in a class centered on police tactics is to teach a tone deaf and painfully inaccurate view of American policing. To examine C3’s effect on “quality of life,” as ES 298R’s course description proposes, while carpeting over equity is absurd. Under Parker’s framework, we doubt the crucial fact that, in 2020, the Justice Department found Springfield police engaged in an unconstitutional pattern of excessive force would even factor into quality-of-life considerations.

That Parker’s course, a seeming ploy to use students to prop up literally militaristic policing, was ever offered is a nightmare. Harvard must urgently commit to ensuring that such glaringly immoral and ill-conceived coursework is never offered again. Courses that task students with coding away deep societal issues obviously and especially warrant scrutiny.

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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