The Black Box of Harvard’s Campus Police

How much does the public know about Harvard University Police Department, the University’s private police force? In what ways is HUPD a “black box” — a system whose inner workings are unknown to outside observers?
By Toby R. Ma
By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen and Yusuf S. Mian

In the pre-dawn hours of April 3, a false 911 call sent Harvard University Police officers equipped with assault rifles and riot gear into a suite occupied by four Black seniors — triggering a wave of scrutiny of the University’s private police force and its practices.

At around 4 a.m., HUPD dispatched at least five armed officers to the students’ suite in Leverett House, an upperclassman dormitory, in response to a hoax 911 call from an individual claiming to be armed and holding a woman hostage in the dorm. The students awoke to banging on their doors and were ordered out of their rooms with their hands up as officers pointed assault rifles at them.

Jarah K. Cotton ’23, one of the seniors, said the experience was “terrifying” in an interview later that day.

“We were all extremely scared, particularly because my roommates and I are Black students who have been bombarded our whole lives with stories and images portraying how situations such as this had ended up terribly,” Cotton wrote in an email that morning. “We felt our lives were in danger. We are traumatized.”

The false 911 call, an apparent swatting attack, made national headlines and led Harvard students, alumni, and the public to scrutinize HUPD’s response and raise questions about the potential racial implications underlying the attack.

HUPD Chief Victor A. Clay said the swatting was “an unprecedented incident.”

While the swatting itself may have been unprecedented, concerns surrounding transparency have long surrounded the more-than-century-old police force.

“My trust for HUPD is very low,” said Prince A. Williams ’25, a labor activist on campus. “I see them every day as sort of someone who’s looking over my shoulder when I’m at a labor rally, or looking over my shoulder when I’m at a Palestine rally.”

“They’re there to intimidate,” added Williams, who is a Crimson Editorial editor.

HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano declined to comment on student criticisms, though wrote in an email that HUPD has become “more diverse, professional, and community oriented” throughout its history.

How much does the public know about the University’s police force? In what ways is HUPD a “black box” — a system whose inner workings are unknown to outside observers?

‘Somebody Weaponized HUPD’

Following the Leverett swatting attack, students and affiliates raised questions about HUPD procedures and Harvard’s response to the attack.

“One of my first reactions was, ‘Somebody weaponized HUPD against Black students,’” Williams said. “Clearly, whoever called knew who was in that room, and they — just like everyone else — they understand the relationship between the police and Black people historically.”

Just over two weeks after the attack, 45 Black student organizations and supporting groups at Harvard co-signed a letter demanding a University-wide statement acknowledging the “significant racial impact” of the swatting, a thorough HUPD investigation, increased HUPD transparency and accountability, “proactive” mental health support, and an in-person town hall with top University officials.

Demonstrators rallied in Harvard Yard in solidarity as Black student leaders met with University administrators about the school's response to the Leverett House "swatting" attack.
Demonstrators rallied in Harvard Yard in solidarity as Black student leaders met with University administrators about the school's response to the Leverett House "swatting" attack. By Claire Yuan

Clay acknowledged the criticisms of students in an interview earlier this month and expressed support for their demands.

“I agree with it 100 percent,” Clay said. “I don’t think their demands were unreasonable at all.”

Clay added that Harvard “dropped the ball” by not issuing a statement to students sooner after the attack. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s email to undergraduates came roughly 66 hours after the police raid, a delay that drew criticism from affiliates.

Clay, along with top Harvard administrators including President Lawrence S. Bacow, President-elect Claudine Gay, and Khurana met with eight Black student leaders representing organizations that signed the letter.

But some student leaders said their demands went unanswered during the meeting. Harvard Black Students Association President Angie Gabeau ’25 told The Crimson in April that she was “a little disappointed in the fact that none of the demands were met” after the meeting.

According to Monica M. Clark ’06, who is president of the Harvard Black Alumni Society, Clay held a May 15 town hall with the alumni group’s members and other administrators following a request from Clark and other leaders of the group.

“I was surprised by how open he was,” Clark said in an interview. “I thought that was really helpful.”

The attack also raised questions about HUPD’s arsenal, with some affiliates expressing concern over the use of assault rifles and riot gear in the raid.

“I was, to be honest, completely and utterly unsurprised,” said TomHenry J. Reagan, an executive board member for Harvard’s graduate student union. “I didn’t really know that they have riot gear capabilities, but I could have guessed it.”

In response to the attack, the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers passed a resolution calling for HUPD to be disarmed and replaced with “unarmed first responders.”

Williams, who supports HUPD’s abolition, said the department should not have assault weapons, calling for the “demilitarizing” of the campus police force.

Clay defended HUPD’s use of “long guns and body armor” in response to criticisms of the use of assault weapons and raid gear.

“I don’t think we’re militarized at all. I think we have the weaponry that is minimally adequate considering the amount of violence in the United States, ” Clay said.

Clay also said that the department’s possession of the equipment should not be surprising.

“It’s been here for years. How come nobody else asked prior to this incident?” Clay said. “It’s not like HUPD purchased these things in a vacuum, so why wasn’t this known prior to me getting here?”

Catalano, the HUPD spokesperson, declined a request from The Crimson for a full inventory of HUPD’s weapons and equipment, citing a longstanding department policy.

‘There’s Always Been Some Issues’

HUPD has long had a contested presence on Harvard’s campus.

A January 2020 Crimson investigation uncovered a pattern of racism, sexism, and alleged favoritism in the department, and in June 2020, former HUPD Chief Francis D. “Bud” Riley announced his plans to retire after a quarter-century leading the department. Shortly after, The Crimson’s Editorial Board called for HUPD’s abolition, pointing to their presence at a Boston police brutality protest sparked by George Floyd’s murder.

“There’s always been some issues and concerns that in many ways is systemic of just policing in the United States in general,” said HUPD Advisory Board Chair Tim Bowman in an April interview.

“It’s not necessarily a bad culture, but it may not always be the culture that — at a university campus — we’re ideally looking for,” Bowman said of U.S. policing culture.

Assuming the role of HUPD’s new chief in July 2021, Clay began his tenure with a pledge for transparency, telling the Harvard Gazette ahead of his appointment that police leadership must “change the culture within our departments” and “show compassion and integrity.”

By March, Clay had overseen a significant personnel overhaul, retaining just three members of Riley’s senior leadership staff.

Clay’s HUPD has also engaged with student activists on concerns over the department’s activities. Following years of outcry from students and faculty, HUPD shut down its substation at Mather House — one of four police substations on campus at the time — in February 2022.

The Harvard University Police Department is the main police force on Harvard's campus.
The Harvard University Police Department is the main police force on Harvard's campus. By Julian J. Giordano

Still, Clay faces a campus that is deeply skeptical of policing.

Nearly 50 percent of respondents to The Crimson’s Class of 2025 freshman survey indicated they strongly or somewhat supported defunding the police. Roughly 24 percent of respondents to The Crimson’s Class of 2023 senior survey indicated that they distrusted HUPD “fully or somewhat,” with Black students reporting the lowest level of trust.

Some, like Williams and Reagan, even call for HUPD to be wholly abolished.

“I personally would really rather see HUPD mostly go away and all of those positions get replaced with unarmed emergency first responders like mental health professionals and EMTs,” Reagan said.

Catalano wrote in an email that HUPD has increased its deescalation and diversity and inclusion training over the years as part of a transition toward greater community engagement.

“We have officers with more diverse backgrounds in order to connect with our community, as well as more females in leadership roles,” he wrote.

‘These Records Aren’t Public’

Unlike municipal police agencies, HUPD’s status as a private police force allows it to shield police reports and other documents from public records requests, with police reports only becoming publicly available following an arrest.

In 2003, The Crimson — represented by the American Civil Liberties Union — filed a lawsuit against HUPD in an effort to compel the department to release detailed crime reports under Massachusetts public records laws.

It argued that HUPD officers should be subject to laws allowing the public to access police reports with detailed information on incidents, including testimony from witnesses and officers’ direct accounts of interactions with the public. The Crimson claimed that HUPD’s denial of its requests for incident reports hinders its ability to report fully on crime-related matters.

However, in 2006, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against The Crimson, upholding the University’s position that HUPD, as a private entity, is not subject to the same public records requirements as municipal police departments and thus is not obligated to disclose incident reports — even to the victims of crimes themselves.

Exceptions to the rule are rare and limited to specific circumstances, such as when victims of theft and accidents require a copy of their incident report for insurance purposes. In those cases, the University’s Office of the General Counsel authorizes HUPD to provide them.

Students have expressed distrust of Harvard University Police Department in the wake of a swatting attack in April.
Students have expressed distrust of Harvard University Police Department in the wake of a swatting attack in April. By Julian J. Giordano

“I think it’s kind of ridiculous that these records aren’t public,” Reagan said. “I think that they should, at the very least, be held to the same level of accountability as a municipal police force.”

“Ideally, I would like to see a step beyond that — maybe, disarmament or just replacing them entirely with unarmed emergency first responders,” he added.

Clay objected to calls to make all police reports publicly available.

“It’s just a popular way of saying, ‘We don’t trust you,’” Clay said. “I’d rather you just say, ‘We don’t trust you, and we want to know more,’ than to say, ‘All your reports should be released.’”

“There’s some things that could cause irreparable damage if they’re released, and I’m not going to do that,” he added. “I don’t care what the cry is.”

Catalano wrote in a statement that the policy is upheld “in the interest of maintaining community members’ privacy.”

But “if the laws and rules around info sharing change,” Catalano wrote, HUPD will comply “as required.”

A Project of Reform

Following a 2020 external review commissioned by Bacow, HUPD introduced an online workload and crime dashboard that “serves to improve communication, information-sharing, and transparency," according to the body’s website.

The dashboard spans three years of data, displaying a detailed breakdown of arrests, criminal complaints, and calls of service from lockouts to medical situations. The dashboard’s initial release of data showed that the department disproportionately arrested Black people from 2018 to 2020.

The tool has not been updated since June 2021.

Reagan criticized the lack of availability of recent data, noting that he was unable to find information after 2021. He added that he has “personally been dissatisfied” with HUPD’s reporting practices and feels “that they’re not really up to par.”

“It doesn’t feel great that we don’t have data on what kinds of arrests are being made, who HUPD is interacting with,” Reagan said.

In a recent interview, Clay explained that the delay in dashboard updates is “to look and make sure that this stuff is actually accurate, and that it rises to the level of what Harvard University would like to see of HUPD.”

“That takes time, and it drags it out,” Clay said, noting that the update has been “ready to go” since March. Clay said that his goal is to release an update every April, though he is “not making any promises.”

Clay stressed HUPD’s commitment to transparency with regard to accessible data.

“I’m proud to say we’re one of the few people that we will put out our data, regardless of what it looks like. We are ready to take the criticism,” Clay said. “It’s not because we’re trying to win some prize.”

Clay added that equipping HUPD officers with body cameras, a measure presently absent, could help enhance accountability.

“It’s a recording of what actually occurs at a scene, so you can’t dispute it — there’s very little room for interpretation,” Clay said. “That makes it very simple for me to say this occurred or this didn’t occur, or officers should have done this, or that was remarkable that an officer did do that thing. So I love it.”

Harvard University Police Chief Victor A. Clay said in an interview this month that he fully agrees with students and alumni who raised concerns about the University and the department following an April swatting attack.
Harvard University Police Chief Victor A. Clay said in an interview this month that he fully agrees with students and alumni who raised concerns about the University and the department following an April swatting attack. By Julian J. Giordano

Still, Clay said that he has not “done a deep dive” on implementing body cameras due to student privacy concerns.

Catalano wrote in an email that the dashboard already highlights the “demographics of the persons impacted by our enforcement actions.”

According to Catalano, the second phase of the dashboard will be released in June and will include updated data through 2022 on HUPD calls, arrests, and criminal complaints, which were previously available through 2020. It will also display three new dashboards with data on field stops, use of force, and personnel complaints, which have not previously been publicly reported.

Catalano added that members of the HUPD Advisory Board — a committee of Harvard affiliates tasked with overseeing HUPD’s activity and providing recommendations — “complimented the transparency of the Dashboard” and offered “a few minor modifications.”

Clay said that the new data will make the department “by far” more transparent than “any other part of this University.”

“I don’t recall seeing data like this from anyone else,” he said.

The student and alumni backlash and calls for greater transparency following the Leverett swatting attack mark a new challenge for Clay’s tenure and his project of police reform.

“The Chief has made community engagement a priority,” Catalano wrote. “He wants the officers to be approachable to be seen as a resource in our joint effort to maintaining a safe and secure campus.”

Some students, however, remain unconvinced by Clay’s moves toward a more open HUPD.

“Story after story, it doesn’t seem like this entity is there to really protect and serve people, but more so to protect and serve this big corporation and its property,” Williams said.

—Staff writer Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ryandoannguyen.

—Staff writer Yusuf S. Mian can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @yusuf_mian2.

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