Denis Downing.

“I’ve been meeting with students, faculty, and staff from across the University to give them a sense of who I am and what I’m hoping to accomplish,” said Denis Downing, the interim police chief for HUPD.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

For Harvard police, a renewed focus on community, communications

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Interim Chief Downing works to implement outside reviewer’s recommendations

This past December, Harvard released the findings of an external, independent review of the University’s police department, which focused on its internal practices and procedures as well as its interactions with community members. In January, Denis Downing assumed the role of interim police chief following the retirement of longtime Chief Francis D. “Bud” Riley, as a nationwide search to find Riley’s permanent successor continues.

Downing, formerly the deputy chief of operations at the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD), has wasted no time implementing some of the recommendations made by 21CP Solutions, which conducted the review. He has focused on establishing new community-building initiatives to engage students, staff, faculty, and HUPD officers alike, and has begun efforts to address areas in which the report suggests, and Downing agrees, that the department can improve, such as communication and policies and procedures.

The Gazette spoke with Downing and Executive Vice President Katie Lapp to discuss how Harvard is already implementing some of the report’s recommendations to lay the foundation for the broader goal of the review and its findings — reshaping public safety at Harvard in an effective and transparent way.


Denis Downing and Katie Lapp

GAZETTE: Interim Chief Downing, since stepping into your new role, you’ve moved quickly to implement new programs and protocols. Could you give us a sense as to what you’ve been working on thus far?

DOWNING: I’m very much invested in the process the University is engaged in right now. In reviewing the 21CP Report, it is clear that improving community relationships is at the top of the list in terms of where we should focus our energy. So, I’ve been meeting with students, faculty, and staff from across the University to give them a sense of who I am and what I’m hoping to accomplish, but more importantly, I’ve asked our community members to provide me with feedback on what is working and not working for them when it comes to public safety in their Schools and units. The power of listening is so important, and we’ve been doing that. In fact, the Department nearly doubled the number of formal community outreach activities, such as meet-and-greets and shared training, in fiscal year 2020 as compared with the previous year.

More than just being a visible presence on campus, I really feel that we need to reintroduce ourselves to our students and help them feel comfortable that we’re a resource they can trust and turn to. And while it’s been challenging this year with the pandemic and fewer students being on campus, we’re still finding ways to do that. We collaborated with students in the Phillips Brooks House on a clothing drive; eight of our officers participated in a training with 15 students on mental health and homelessness with a specific focus on how to help the homeless living in Harvard Square; we provide an online self-defense class for community members; and we’ve held meetings with students and advisers from Counseling and Mental Health Services’ peer-counseling website Room 13 in order to educate our officers about this important resource, and to maintain open communication lines to assist and better respond to sensitive issues when they occur.

In April we hope students from the Graduate Commons Program will join us on an HUPD Bike Tour around campus and the city of Cambridge. We’re also looking at collaborating with various student groups on days of service that many of the Schools participate in this coming fall.

GAZETTE: Would you tell us more about why it’s so important for the HUPD to connect with students?

DOWNING: I think it’s clear, and the 21CP report shows this, that there has been a disconnect between our department and Harvard’s students. I think we’ve gotten away from some of the things we’ve done in the past to connect with students, where they are, and to really attempt to engage with them, and understand their concerns. We have to get back to that. I tell my officers that you have to communicate with people. This is the only way we’ll be able to begin to repair that disconnect.

GAZETTE: The 21CP report makes suggestions for immediate areas of improvement within the HUPD, such as communication, policies and procedures, and community relationships. You’ve already addressed the importance of community relationships; could you speak to other ways the department is already acting on these recommendations?

DOWNING: We need to do better understanding issues of diversity and inclusion. I recently assigned Sgt. Jacobo Negron to be our community engagement and inclusion chair, and we are beginning to assemble a team to focus on how we can more effectively serve all of the members of our diverse community. Chief diversity and inclusion officer Sherri Charleston has provided us with some excellent guidance as we begin to put together this team.

We also have struggled recently with how we communicate with the Harvard community; for example, we have not been using social media as many of our peer agencies do as a means to share information. As we all know, our students live on these platforms, and social media presents an excellent opportunity for us to communicate things that are happening within the police department and to receive direct feedback from them. We have convened a committee, and are working toward the goal of ramping up our social media engagement more fully.

Another one of our initiatives that is dear to me is our new departmental wellness committee. We’re looking at ways to help our officers and our civilian employees alike better handle the very real stresses of their jobs. I always say that we are one, and we have to act like one. This means supporting each other so that we can best support our community. Working in conjunction with Human Resources, we are helping our officers deal with fears surrounding their day-to-day work, COVID-19, and with reflecting on what’s happening with policing in our country right now, to name just a few of the many issues facing our dedicated staff. Members of this committee will soon be participating in a critical intervention training.

“More than just being a visible presence on campus, I really feel that we need to reintroduce ourselves to our students and help them feel comfortable that we’re a resource they can trust and turn to.”

GAZETTE: When the 21CP report was released, the University announced that it would launch a data dashboard for relevant HUPD performance indicators this spring, with the goal of having it operational and available to community members no later than June. Have you made any progress on this as yet?

DOWNING: Yes. In fact, we’ve been able to maintain a working relationship with 21CP Solutions, who have great ideas on what this dashboard should look like. We’re currently in updating our website as a whole, which will include the dashboard and provide data on such things as calls for service, citizen complaints, community service opportunities, and use of force. It will always be on our website and accessible to community members. We hope to post this new dashboard on a refreshed HUPD website in the coming months.

The calls for service data is, for me, particularly interesting, as we continue to have a shared conversation with community members, and with advice from 21CP Solutions, on what types of calls the HUPD should respond to, and how this could change from what we’ve been doing up until now. Is there always a need for a police officer to respond to a particular call, or can we can we send Securitas, or engage the assistance of a proctor, or a mental health professional based on what is happening?

You know, the biggest recommendation of the report is that Harvard undertake a multiyear process to reimagine public safety through a course of community conversations and a facilitated process. The way we’re looking at the calls for service we receive is a great early example of this, and the data is certainly foundational work toward this ultimate, broad goal.

GAZETTE: EVP Lapp, you said in this space back in December that, this spring, Harvard will create two groups to pick up the important work this review has started — an HUPD advisory board to provide guidance and feedback to the HUPD on how well the department is serving the community, and a facilitating committee that will undertake a structured community conversation designed to clearly define the Harvard community’s expectations with regard to safety and well-being. Could you give us an update as to where we are now in terms of these committees?

LAPP: We recently created a 13-member HUPD Advisory Board comprised of students, faculty, and staff which will meet for the first time on Friday, March 26. The purpose of the board is to, among other things, enhance communication and transparency between the department and our community. This is a great opportunity for the department to have a dedicated space to hear directly from community members on a regular basis, and we are so grateful to the members for agreeing to serve.

We expect to announce a new chief for the department in the near future, and he or she will be responsible for convening the Advisory Board to hear their thoughts, input, and guidance on all of the recommendations of the external report, including those we have discussed already and more. We will continue to work toward establishing a facilitating committee to undertake a structured community conversation around campus safety and well-being with the benefit of this foundational work. We expect this committee to get underway closer to this fall, rather than this spring, with the benefit of having the Advisory Board in place and the new chief onboarded.

DOWNING: I would add that I’m very excited to start meeting with the advisory board, because it will include people from across the University. I’m especially looking forward to the perspective students will bring to these discussions. Some of these conversations may be very difficult, but they will provide us with a real opportunity to solicit feedback, to reflect on what we can do better, and to think about how we can collaborate on future initiatives. I’m also looking forward to letting committee members know what exactly it is that we at HUPD do for Harvard.

GAZETTE: EVP Lapp mentioned the search for your successor, to fulfill the role on a permanent basis. What are your thoughts on how you will work with this new hire to help them to lead HUPD?

DOWNING: I’ve been here for 23 years and I am still learning new things about Harvard. We are unique in many different ways. I’m still out there searching, and asking questions. So, in addition to welcoming the new chief, and helping to advance his or her work, I plan to continue doing what I’m doing now — connecting with people and learning what we can do better.

The members of the recently formed HUPD Advisory Board are: Eric Beerbohm, professor of government and Quincy House Faculty Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Tim Bowman, executive dean for administration and finance, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Rob Dickson; director of campus services, Harvard Medical School; Cassandra Extavour, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and of molecular and cellular biology, FAS; Jan Hammond, Jesse Philips Professor of Manufacturing and senior associate dean for culture and community, Harvard Business School (HBS); Noah Harris, AB candidate and president of the Undergraduate Council, Harvard College; Tracie Jones, director of diversity, inclusion and belonging, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Sebastián E. Negrón Reichard, J.D./M.B.A. Candidate, Harvard Law School (HLS) and HBS; Edison Orrego, Adams House unit manager, Harvard University Dining Services; Osiris Rankin, Ph.D. candidate and teaching fellow in psychology, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; Catherine Shapiro, senior resident dean and Mather House resident scholar, Harvard College; Sandra Susan Smith, Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice, Harvard Kennedy School of Government; and Crystal Yang, professor of law, HLS.

Interview was lightly edited.