Police were called to Harvard University on Friday to respond to a reported disturbance. An officer tackled a nude Black student to the ground and punched him at least five times. Now, the Harvard community is figuring out how best to respond to what students are calling police brutality.
The student police punched, Selorm Ohene, is a 21-year-old student who is studying mathematics at Harvard. An acquaintance of the student told police that he had taken hallucinogenic drugs.
His lawyers are two Harvard Law School professors, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and Dehlia Umunna. But in general, the university does not seem to be doing much to immediately address the situation.
Harvard University President Drew G. Faust said the incident was “profoundly disturbing” in an email sent on Monday but added that Harvard does “not yet know all the facts.” Harvard’s Office of General Counsel and the central administration of the university are reportedly “involved” in looking into the arrest further, according to the Harvard Crimson, and Associate Dean of Students for Diversity and Inclusion Roland S. Davis said he would imagine “some sort of investigative process is forthcoming, if it hasn’t already been initiated.”
But students and administrators are demanding to know why police were called to the scene in the first place as a response to a student under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.
The Harvard Black Law Students Association (HBLSA), along with other groups in the Harvard community, wrote a letter to the “Harvard University and Broader Cambridge and Boston Community” criticizing the Harvard University Health Services’ (HHUS) decision:
Instead of sending staff to support the student, HUHS transferred callers to CPD, who then responded as police often do whether cameras are rolling or not — by failing to appropriately respond to the individual needs of the person concerned and resorting to violence unnecessarily and with impunity. By involving CPD, HUHS put this student at great risk of being killed by the police.
The Undergraduate Council at Harvard also asked Davis why the university’s health services transferred a caller to the police. On Sunday, Davis told the students he didn’t have an answer yet and “you should be concerned about that.”
The HBLSA and other members of the Harvard community demanded that Harvard create “an internal crisis response team to support students, faculty, and staff that does not involve CPD” and pressure the Cambridge Police Department to hold officers accountable for their actions. HBLSA also said that police were not respecting students’ rights to record police activity.
The HBLSA is calling attention to the dangers of calling police. Although the majority of officer and civilian interactions end without violence, Black people are much more likely to have police use force on them, according to a 2016 study that analyzed more than 19,000 incidents of use of force from 2010 to 2015. This also extends to students at school or on campus.
The Harvard Crimson revisited the details of one of their 2006 articles about an Asian student on LSD who was reportedly running through a dormitory naked. Police came to the scene. He was jumping on furniture and knocking things over and attempted to run away from officers. He hit one officer in the face. But officers did not punch the student at any time. Last year, at Colgate University, someone called campus safety after they saw a black student with a glue gun. The university told students there may be an armed person on campus and the campus was locked down for hours.
Harvard students said what Ohene needed was help, not police. One student, Swathi R. Srinivasan, said it’s possible the school’s amnesty policy wasn’t used properly in this incident. The school’s amnesty policy states that undergraduates can bring drug-impaired or intoxicated friends to Health Services or another hospital and that the impaired person would not face disciplinary action from the college as a result. It’s not clear whether that policy considers calling the police to violate that amnesty, but if the purpose is to protect a student’s health, it did not work in Ohene’s case, who was repeatedly punched by an officer.
The Cambridge Police are conducting an internal review of the arrest, which is supposed to happen whenever police use force, but Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard, Jr. said he supports the officers.