National Concerns about Policing Reverberate at Harvard

Police chief Riley to retire, and the University commissions an external review of the department.

This photograph of a Harvard University Police officer at a Boston protest against mistreatment of people of color at the hands of police was widely shared on Twitter. The officer in the photograph, and six others dispatched in response to a request for mutual aid from the Boston police department, were members of the HUPD bicycle patrol, an innovation Riley instituted in the 1990s to improve community relations. Some members of the Harvard community were outraged at the presence of Harvard officers at an off-campus rally against police brutality.

On Monday, June 8, against the backdrop of national protests against police forces and recent allegations of a climate of racism and discrimination within the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD), the University released a statement announcing the retirement of Francis D. “Bud” Riley, 74, as chief of police by the end of the year. Riley had been overseeing a review of the department’s culture, following allegations published in The Harvard Crimson in January of a pattern of sexist and racist behavior within departmental ranks. That announcement was followed two days later by another, from President Lawrence S. Bacow. In a June 10 letter that addressed questions raised by the presence of HUPD officers at a Franklin Park protest in Boston the previous week—there to provide mutual aid to local police—Bacow announced a second review of HUPD, this one conducted only by outside experts and reporting directly to Harvard executive vice president Katie Lapp. 

Ironically, Harvard hired Riley 25 years ago, amid complaints about a racist and overzealous campus police force, with a mandate to remodel HUPD around community policing, focused on crime prevention rather than law enforcement. Riley has worked continuously in the years since to strengthen the relationship between his officers and the campus community, implementing and refining a “Community Oriented Problem Solving” philosophy of policing.

HUPD Chief Francis D. “Bud” Riley, who arrived at Harvard with a mandate to institute “community policing.”
Photograph by Jon Chase/HPAC

“When I began my tenure at Harvard, the campus was experiencing turbulence and extreme tension between the HUPD and the Harvard community,” Riley wrote in a letter to departmental colleagues and staff announcing his retirement. “President Rudenstine charged me with evaluating the problems and implementing changes to improve relationships and restore confidence in the Department. Working together with students, staff and faculty, we made changes that I believe improved our communication and interactions with and across the community. We implemented new sensitivity training for our officers, made procedural changes in our policing culture, strategy, and tactics as well as hiring practices to recruit more minority and women candidates, and improve their career development and path to promotion.” In 2015, HUPD became the second university police department in the United States to give all officers the procedural justice training recommended by President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. 

Yet accusations of discriminatory HUPD practices have persisted, and grew louder after an incident on the night of April 13, 2018, when videos circulated on the Internet of a black male Harvard College student, naked on a traffic island in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue, and reportedly under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, being tackled, pinned to the ground, punched, and taken into custody by Cambridge police officers. Shortly before, a call to HUPD from University Health Services requesting assistance for the student was referred instead to Cambridge dispatchers, reportedly because the student was not on Harvard grounds and HUPD was busy supervising an unexpected spike in intoxication at an annual Yardfest celebration. Responding Cambridge police officers requested HUPD assistance, but by the time a Harvard officer arrived, the student was in custody.

The next day, the Harvard Black Law Students Association (HBLSA) issued a statement describing the arrest as police brutality and decrying Harvard’s failure to mobilize University resources and personnel before calling on the Cambridge police (CPD) to intervene. (A subsequent review of CPD actions by a former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that arresting officers had acted appropriately and had not used excessive force.) “The University has ample resources that could have, and should have, been mobilized to come to the student’s aid prior to CPD getting involved,” the statement read. “Harvard University Health Services (HUHS) were the first to be called for help prior to the arrival of CPD. Instead of sending staff to support the student, HUPD transferred callers to CPD….By involving CPD, HUHS put this student at risk of being killed by the police.”

Then-University president Drew Faust also issued a statement, calling the events “profoundly disturbing.” She convened a committee to review the incident, gather community input, and make recommendations to improve Harvard protocols for crisis response, community policing, mental-health resources, and more. The committee’s report, issued that November, included a foundational commitment that, “As an academic institution committed to expanding opportunity and creating a diverse community that enhances the learning of every student, Harvard should be proactive, innovative, and resourceful in its efforts to create the conditions that allow the members of our community to reach their highest potential.” 

Among the review committee’s many recommendations were that HUPD clearly communicate what students can expect of Harvard police on and off campus, “with the understanding that both HUPD and members of the community have said that they would prefer that HUPD be on the scene when possible”; for HUHS and HUPD to assess the viability of including mental-health professionals as first responders to mental-health crises on campus; for Harvard schools to review protocols that enable students to report incidents of racial bias; and for HUHS and HUPD to expand on existing training programs and community-outreach efforts “with the goal of being a campus police department that consistently demonstrates expertise and excellence when meeting the needs of our diverse community.”


Reviews of university-police practices, and protests over racial discrimination by campus police, are not unique to Harvard: there is a long history of such complaints occurring across decades at institutions across the country. Far less attention has been paid to allegations of racist and sexist incidents that take place within these organizations, out of public view.

At Harvard, that changed this past January 31, when the Crimson published an investigative report on HUPD’s internal culture, exposing a history of complaints and allegations of differential treatment attributable to race, gender, or personal relationships, lodged by 21 current and former employees. The article cited multiple filings and lawsuits brought before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, internal documents, and interviews with HUPD officers and administrators. The article noted that the department had made significant strides in hiring minority and female officers and had instituted mandatory diversity training during Riley’s tenure, but also stated that several officers had identified Riley as the source of what they described as a racist, sexist, and “toxic” internal culture. Five days later, Riley convened a working group composed of HUPD employees to investigate. Two external law-enforcement experts were hired to advise the group, which reported to Riley and University executive vice president Katherine Lapp. 

At the time, the Harvard University Police Association union expressed dissatisfaction with that reporting structure, and called instead for a wholly external review—with no departmental personnel involved. Using HUPD employees to lead the review would prevent officers from speaking honestly, the union’s executive board members said; they also pointed out that any department-wide review should cover the chief as well.


Just such a review—independent, and conducted by outside experts—was announced by President Bacow in his June 10 letter. Bacow acknowledged that the presence of HUPD officers at the June 2 Franklin Park protest against police brutality had raised legitimate questions, including “what role does HUPD play beyond our campus and how can we ensure this role is consistent with our commitment to community policing and community values?” 

Their presence at the protest, which had become widely publicized through a photo that appeared on Twitter, was a function of “mutual aid agreements” common between universities and local police, Bacow explained: Boston and Cambridge police assist Harvard at large events, such as concerts or Commencement, and Harvard lends assistance in return. “During the pursuit and manhunt of the Boston Marathon bombers, for example, an HUPD officer saved the life of a transit police officer who had been shot during an exchange of gunfire with the suspects,” Bacow wrote. Nevertheless, he added, “The current circumstances, however, have rightly served as a catalyst for an important national discussion about policing and vital questions about racism, police brutality, and how we must reimagine the role of our institutions in providing public safety and security.” Those issues echo prior criticisms of Harvard policing and emergency-response protocols.

Some student groups, including The Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign and the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition—outraged by the Twitter photo, which they considered further evidence of HUPD engagement in aggressive policing of black and brown communities—nevertheless called on the University to abolish HUPD. In a petition, they connected the June 2 incident with multiple previous instances—including the April 2018 incident on Massachusetts Avenue; another occasion when HUPD helped Cambridge police make several arrests at a September 2019 rally urging the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency; and a case when Harvard police responded to an October 2019 complaint about Latinx students in Harvard Yard, who turned out to be setting up an art installation for a class. Although a Faculty of Arts and Sciences report found that officers responding to the October event had no “malicious intent,” the student reaction recalled comments from the report issued after the 2018 Mass. Ave. incident: that HUPD can make students of color feel unsafe, and more generally, that Harvard should invest more in mental-health care than in punishment.

Bacow announced that, in addition to the internal working-group review of HUPD climate and use of excessive force that was to have been delivered to Chief Riley, the University would launch a new, independent review of the department’s culture and policing practices. The two outside experts retained—Brenda Bond and Ronald Davis—who will report directly to executive vice president Lapp, are also advising Riley’s internal review. Reexamining Harvard’s mutual-aid agreements with nearby municipal police forces is one of their assignments. Bacow noted that the independent review “will serve as a crucial resource for our community and for the new leader of the HUPD.”

Executive board members of the Harvard University Police Association (HUPA), the police union, who were critical of the earlier internal review, appear satisfied with the new reporting structure. “We are pleased that Harvard has changed course and will do a full, independent, external review of HUPD,” HUPA secretary Michael Davenport said in a statement. “Members of the internal review were handpicked by the chief and we were not comfortable with that process. The current internal review should discontinue immediately as there was a fear of retribution throughout the ranks. The independent external report should go directly to President Bacow and Katie Lapp.”


That Riley, brought in to reform Harvard’s police force and address concerns over racism and broken trust with the Harvard community, should be leaving amid concerns similar to those at the beginning of his tenure is unfortunate. But as a growing movement declares that Black Lives Matter and that police departments must change, it is clear that Harvard is listening. “Black lives matter,” Bacow wrote in his letter about HUPD, “and we must use this moment to confront and remedy racial injustice.”  

Read more articles by: Matteo Wong
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