Three months into his tenure, Harvard University Police Department chief Victor A. Clay said he is looking at changes to HUPD’s response to mental health crises on and near campus in an interview with The Crimson on Friday.
Clay said he has spoken with Harvard University Health Services director Giang T. Nguyen about HUPD and HUHS’s response to mental health crises.
“It’s a little intimidating when you talk about something this important, and you want to get it right,” Clay said. “We were sitting there having a conversation and we were actually making steps — it wasn’t just a conversation — we’re actually problem solving.”
Clay added that HUPD officers are not mental health professionals, and mental health crises should not be a “police issue to the end.”
“We need a partner who’s actually going to respond and take control of those types of situations and we will get there and make sure the scene is safe and everyone is safe and secure,” Clay said.
Clay cautioned that despite the conversation with Nguyen, HUPD has yet to change its policies in responding to mental health crises.
“We haven’t changed any response just yet, but we are in full support of this 24-hour hotline,” Clay said. “[Nguyen is] in full support of us and wanting to have a partner out there that we can count on when we face those types of incidents.”
Clay said a lack of mental health resources had posed a challenge in his past career on the police force, causing officers to respond to situations that should be resolved by mental health professionals.
Clay took over as the head of HUPD in July 2021 after an eight-month-long nationwide search to replace the embattled former HUPD Chief Francis D. “Bud” Riley, who led the department for more than two decades. Riley announced his retirement amid nationwide protests against police violence in June 2020, following intense scrutiny of HUPD triggered by a 2020 Crimson investigation that found instances of racism and sexism within the force.
Clay also discussed the response to a 2018 incident in which the Cambridge Police Department forcibly arrested a Black undergraduate on the night of Yardfest, the College’s annual spring concert.
CPD officers alleged that the student had made aggressive moves toward them. However, bystanders disputed that claim and said the officers punched the student five times in the stomach without provocation. The incident sparked allegations of police brutality and a public outcry.
During that incident, HUHS was originally called regarding a naked male student on Massachusetts Avenue. The student’s location — across from Harvard Law School — resulted in CPD, and not HUHS or HUPD, responding to the call.
Clay said he had spoken to the CPD acting police commissioner Christine Elow about HUPD’s involvement in cases involving Harvard students.
“I told her that I would like it if in the City of Cambridge, within a reasonable distance from campus, something occurs and it is affiliated with our associated to the campus, I would like her to give us a call, especially if it involves a student,” Clay said. “I asked her if we could kind of make that agreement that HUPD will respond, if not to support to even take the handle on some things that involve Harvard students because, like I said, this is our community.”
Clay did not describe Elow’s response to his inquiries.
Clay said that calling the police should not be the uniform response to individuals experiencing acute mental health issues.
“If somebody is in a mental health crisis, I want them to get help,” Clay said. “Just don’t call the cops and say, ‘put this person somewhere.’ That's not what should happen. So we’re working toward a solution.”
“I think that’s one thing too about Harvard, I think we have an opportunity to create a standard,” Clay added.
—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.