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SEAS Prof. Behind Withdrawn Policing Course Continues Research, Plans Fall 2021 Iteration

Bioengineering professor Kevin K. Parker wrote in a statement Thursday that he plans to teach a course on data analysis and policing strategy in fall 2021.
Bioengineering professor Kevin K. Parker wrote in a statement Thursday that he plans to teach a course on data analysis and policing strategy in fall 2021. By Jacqueline S. Chea
By Natalie L. Kahn and Simon J. Levien, Crimson Staff Writers

Bioengineering professor Kevin K. “Kit” Parker wrote in a statement to The Crimson Thursday that he plans to teach a course on data analysis and policing strategy in fall 2021, despite cancelling the course this semester after student backlash.

In the statement, Parker — a professor at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences — said he is continuing the research that he planned to conduct in the class on the Springfield, Mass. police department, and criticized Harvard students who pushed for the course’s cancellation in late January.

Parker’s course Engineering Sciences 298R: “Data Fusion in Complex Systems: A Case Study” would have enabled SEAS graduate students to use data analytics to study how the Springfield Police Department deploys Counter-Criminal Continuum policing, or C3 — a law enforcement strategy — in the city’s North End neighborhood. C3 was developed by a friend of Parker’s and is based on United States Army Special Forces counterinsurgency tactics.

Shortly after a student petition calling for the class’s termination garnered more than 500 signatories – including nearly a dozen current or former Springfield residents – SEAS Dean Francis J. Doyle III announced in a Jan. 25 email that the course would not be offered this spring.

Doyle added in the email that SEAS would convene a review of its course approval process.

The petitioners criticized the class for researching a policing strategy they believe normalizes the “militarization of society,” while also failing to acknowledge the effects of “structural racism” in the police.

Parker wrote on Thursday that his project takes a “holistic approach” to analyze the effectiveness of C3, using data related to crime, education, housing, and youth engagement.

He added his research project extends well beyond the course, but that discontinuing the class this semester was a “tragedy” since it deprived students of the opportunity to “apply their analytical skills to a real world data set derived from an emergent societal issue.”

Parker stood by his decision to move forward with the project, claiming the students were making unfounded assumptions “without ever having spent time in the North End” — where Parker attends weekly meetings with residents. He added that the reaction from students “doesn’t reflect honorably on Harvard at all.”

“The explosion of misinformation about the course and the implied threats against the students who would enroll are inconsistent with the expected code of conduct in the community of scholars,” he wrote.

Neal A. Boyd, a bishop in the North End, said he believes much of the strong reaction from students came from “reacting to what they see around the country” rather than C3 policing in the North End.

Boyd said, though the policing strategy is utilized by the Springfield Police, C3 policing is “totally separate” from the police division itself because of the emphasis it places on community involvement. He also noted that Parker does not receive compensation for his work.

“They help us statistically in our neighborhood, to help people see the change,” Boyd said, referring to Parker and his students.

“It would have been to Harvard’s advantage to take this positive story,” Boyd added. “People who instigated this — I feel bad for them, because they got wrong information, wherever they got it from.”

Graduate student Avriel C. Epps-Darling, one of the organizers of the petition, wrote in an email Thursday that authors of the petition had corresponded with multiple North End residents who were in favor of canceling the course but did not want to come forward for fear of police retaliation.

North End resident Jose Claudio, who was involved in setting up Springfield’s C3 program in 2009, said the military origins of C3 have been taken out of proportion. He argued that C3 has increased the amount of businesses, affordable housing, investment in schools, and infrastructure in Springfield over the last decade, while also reducing crime.

Claudio said C3 had allowed Springfield to raise money to install “ShotSpotters” — devices that alert police of nearby gunshots — around the North End neighborhood.

Claudio added that the controversy surrounding the class would “not really” influence Parker’s research project or C3 methods in Springfield.

In a Jan. 28 Zoom meeting with North End residents, Parker divulged more details surrounding the controversy with the class.

Parker said at the meeting that the Harvard Committee on the Use of Human Subjects, the University’s Institutional Review Board, had approved his project.

“All of my team went through training on ethics and training for dealing with human subjects in an ethical manner,” Parker said.

Responding to student criticism that he, a professor who specializes in tissue engineering, did not have suitable expertise in criminal justice or data analytics, Parker said at the meeting that he was slated to co-teach the course with a data science instructor.

Without mentioning the instructor’s name, Parker said the instructor backed out of the class as a result of the controversy. In Parker’s initial Jan. 22 email announcing the course, Harvard Institute for Applied Computational Science lecturer Pavlos Protopapas was listed on course staff. Protopapas did not respond to a request for comment.

Parker also told the meeting attendees that he had suggested the decision to not hold the spring iteration of the class himself and apologized to North End residents for the controversy.

“I’m so sorry this has happened and that your community might be misportrayed,” Parker said. “I apologize, I apologize on behalf of Harvard.”

Despite the controversy, Doyle — the SEAS Dean — said in an interview with The Crimson Thursday that he still values addressing “charged topics” that can arise out of technological development and present important ethical questions.

“As engineers, we’re not immune to some of the charged topics that might show up in our curriculum, show up in our research, that might be the traditional domain of other areas,” he said.

In his emailed statement, Parker argued that limiting research and teaching to only topics that “wouldn’t upset anyone” is a “fool’s errand.”

“If we are pushing the frontiers of knowledge at Harvard, if we are daring to innovate, we are going to risk comfort and failure,” Parker wrote. “If you are comfortable at Harvard, you probably aren’t doing it right.”

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

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

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