Harvard cancels course on controversial policing method under pressure from students


Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) canceled a course that was to be offered this semester due to pressure from students. The course features a controversial policing technique called Counter Criminal Continuum Policing, or C3.

The title of the course was Data Fusion in Complex Systems: A Case Study. The course was to have focused on evaluating the use of C3 to disrupt gang and illicit drug activity in Springfield, Massachusetts, where it is currently in use. The decision to cancel the course was announced Monday afternoon in an email from Harvard SEAS Dean Frank J. Doyle. The technique was developed by the U.S. military in their work of community policing in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is where the problem comes in for the students. It is rooted in military use.

Professor Kit Parker planned to offer the course. He served in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army and has been researching the efficacy of counterinsurgency techniques used in Afghanistan and Iraq as applied in Springfield, Massachusetts for a decade. The C3 technique was created by Michael Cutone, a retired Massachusetts state trooper. He sees it as a potential model for police reform. He uses the best practices he learned during his time as a Green Beret and applies them to civilian law enforcement.

“C3 policing is designed to build legitimacy of law enforcement, [through] partnering relationships with the local citizens, to achieve the goals of a safer community,” Parker, the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics, said in an email.

Cutone denies the technique militarizes the police. He also served in Afghanistan.

“The policing program I started has nothing to do with militarizing the police,” Cutone said. “It’s basically taking the best practices I learned from community engagement with my time with the Green Berets, then applying them in the civilian law-enforcement sector.”

In that interview, Cutone also said that in the C3 framework, members of law enforcement take their cues from local residents.

“The folks that came up with the best ideas to help their community were the citizens, and the cops were able to help them implement it,” he said. “What a novel idea.”

As far back as 2012, stories have been written in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Harvard Gazette, and Nature about the C3 policing program. This is a video I found from 2013. Michael Cutone is featured, along with community partners like Father Yerick Mendez. The Catholic Church community is a partner with police in the north end of Springfield and is pleased with the results in reducing crime.

A letter written by the students raised concerns about violence against some communities and “tools of oppression”, or something. And it accuses Parker of using research produced by students for his own personal profit.

The Jan. 24 letter from the students said the planned course represents “the disturbing historical trend of universities like Harvard … supporting violence against marginalized communities,” and accused Harvard of “continu[ing] to be at the cutting edge of providing the next generation tools of oppression.”

It also noted that policing is not Parker’s area of expertise, and suggested he might personally profit from research that students would have conducted.

In a statement provided to GBH News, Parker said that is not the case.

“I get nothing from this project financially, only the personal satisfaction of trying to contribute to an understanding of an impoverished community who has made some very courageous decisions about taking control of their fate from violent criminal gangs,” he wrote.

Parker counters that the course and on-going research represent much-needed engagement between academia and the wider world. “I expect Harvard to display the moral courage to support its faculty who endeavor to lead such projects … and their academic freedom,” he added. The C3 program is working well in Springfield and city officials speak well of the results.

Springfield City Councilor Victor Davila, who represents the city’s sixth ward, tells GBH News the C3 approach has boosted community engagement and helped identify local trouble spots, including illegal chop shops and locations with dangerous traffic.

“C3 isn’t a fix all, but it’s a darn good way of combatting quality of life issues and combatting crime,” Davila said.

The approach “helps to foster a good relationship with the police department and to open up trust — a trust which, by the way, is sorely needed in Springfield,” Davila added. “We have had issues in Springfield for a long time. There’s a lot of work to do. But I think that some gains have been made.”

The people involved in the program in Springfield like it. It’s community policing, which is implemented in many cities across the United States. By working with residents, police and community leaders get guidance on what is needed and how to achieve a safer neighborhood. It sounds as though the roots of the program, in the military, is what all the opposition is about. College students are supposed to be the ones who are learning in class. Instead, they are allowed to decide which classes will be offered, even at Harvard. The inmates are running the asylum. If the upcoming generation is serious about police reform and police relationships with communities, they would embrace a program like this and use it as an opportunity to achieve those changes.

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