Harvard Investigates Univ. Police Following Allegations of Racism

Harvard University will launch an examination of the campus Police Department following long-running complaints that officers have unfairly treated black students and professors and, in an incident this month, a black high school student working at Harvard.

President Drew Gilpin Faust announced Tuesday that she has appointed an independent, six-member committee to review the diversity training, community outreach, and recruitment efforts of Harvard police, the first review of its kind in more than a decade. In recent weeks, black student and faculty leaders have been pressing the university to address what they view as racial profiling by the predominantly white campus police force, which Harvard oversees.

Ralph Martin, former Suffolk district attorney and managing partner of the Boston office of the Bingham McCutchen law firm, will lead the committee, which will start work next week.

“All of us share an interest in sustaining constructive relations between our campus police and the broader Harvard community, in order to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all faculty, students, staff, and visitors,” Faust wrote in an e-mail to senior university administrators and faculty. “… I am confident that this group’s efforts will help the university address this important set of issues in a constructive spirit and forthright manner.”

Black faculty members praised Faust’s initiative, saying it signaled that she will address the issue thoroughly and effectively. Some said the university should go further and establish a permanent police community board to ease tension on both sides.

Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree said black students arrive on campus aiming for academic success but instead find themselves under suspicion.

“I’ve been hosting, moderating, and mediating meetings between Harvard’s black students and university police for much of the last 20 years, and it always stems from an individual incident when African-Americans appear to be the subject of racial profiling by the police department,” Ogletree said Tuesday. “The problem is a persistent one, because there’s still this unfortunate assumption that equates the color of a person’s skin with involvement in criminality.”

Harvard police officials would not respond to questions about specific incidents, but issued a statement Tuesday saying they hope the review will help the private force better serve Harvard’s diverse population. “We look forward to any recommendations generated by the process that will help ensure the HUPD remains as effective as possible,” the statement said.

Faust was unavailable for comment Tuesday. In her memo, she wrote that the review is being launched “partly in response to concerns expressed internally.”

Earlier this month, she noted, officers confronted a person using tools to remove a lock from a locked bicycle. The person, whom others familiar with the case have identified as a black Boston high school student working on the Harvard campus this summer, owned the bicycle, and was trying to cut the lock because the key had broken off in the lock. The two officers involved have been placed on administrative leave, pending a separate investigation into the matter, said a source familiar with the case.

Faculty and students say previous incidents have fanned tension with police.

In spring 2007, officers interrupted a field day on the Radcliffe Quad sponsored by two black student groups. Police asked whether the young men and women were Harvard students and whether they had permission to be there, even though they had a permit.

And in 2004, police stopped S. Allen Counter, a prominent neuroscience professor, as he was walking to his office across Harvard Yard because they mistook him for a black robbery suspect.

Earlier this month, in response to inquiries from the Globe, Police Chief Francis Riley said through a spokesman that the department has begun conversations with the black student organizations to address “bias incidents” but would not respond to a request for statistics on how often black students and faculty are stopped.

Alneada Biggers, president of the Association of Black Harvard Women, said the review shows Faust is aware of black students’ concerns about police.

“It’s much needed,” Biggers said. “If you talk to any student in the black community, they’ll talk about being targeted.”

J. Lorand Matory - who co-chairs the Association of Black Faculty, Administrators and Fellows - called the police review a “thoughtful response.”

“I hope this committee will be able to initiate a thoughtful conversation that we have not been able to accomplish to date,” said Matory, a professor of anthropology and African and African-American studies.

Martin said he hopes the committee will present its findings and recommendations by December.

“Any great institution is never afraid to be introspective,” Martin said. “This is really an effort to identify what the university police do well, as well as what the areas of improvement potentially are. We’re going to go at it as objectively as possible.”

In addition to Martin, members of the committee are William Lee, a former Harvard overseer; Mark Moore, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government; Nancy Rosenblum, Harvard professor of ethics in politics and government; Matthew Sundquist, president of the Harvard Undergraduate Council; and David Wilkins, a Harvard law professor.