A Mathematics postdoctoral fellow who alleges he was detained by the Harvard University Police Department last week said the terminology HUPD used in its police log to describe his stop — a "field interview" — inaccurately understates the officers’ actions and misleads the public about how the department, which frequently describes its operations using the same language, conducts itself.
Arnav Tripathy ’11 said he was crossing through the Radcliffe Quadrangle on his way home from his office around 10:30 p.m. on March 29 when a HUPD officer approached him and asked him questions, such as what he was doing in the area, in relation to an ongoing incident. A second officer then arrived who asked Tripathy to stay to answer further questions, according to Tripathy.
Tripathy said he asked the second officer whether he was being detained and the officers responded in the affirmative and said he was not free to go. The officers allegedly told Tripathy he matched the description of a suspect who had chased two undergraduate women into their dorm earlier that evening. He was informed the suspect was wearing a hoodie, like Tripathy was.
After at least 30 minutes, Tripathy said, a third officer arrived and informed him that he was free to go.
The third officer allegedly told Tripathy that the suspect was actually a white man dressed in all black. Tripathy said he did not match this description, as he is a “darker-skinned” individual and he was wearing a navy hoodie and light blue-jeans.
The incident was later recorded in HUPD’s public crime log as a “field interview.”
“Officers dispatched to a report of an individual following two other individuals in the area,” the log reads. “Shortly afterward, officer located an individual and conducted a field interview. Following the field interview, the individual was sent on their way.”
Tripathy said the phrasing in the log — a transparency measure required by law — is misleading, and does not accurately represent his encounter with HUPD.
“That’s just a complete lie,” Tripathy said of the log entry.
HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano wrote in an emailed statement that HUPD officers have “discretionary authority” to stop individuals if they have reason to believe the person “has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.”
“These interactions are commonly referred to as ‘field interviews’ and are inherent to any effort to protect a community and offer the HUPD more context through which to evaluate situations,” Catalano wrote. “It is important to note that very rarely field interviews rise to the level where an individual is placed in custodial detainment, i.e. arrested or placed in custody for their safety/the safety of others.”
HUPD commonly uses the term “field interview” in its public logs, with nine such interactions documented since Jan. 1, including one that ended in an arrest for an active warrant.
Several law enforcement experts said consensual “field interviews” are a common practice employed by police departments, but that in practice, and in some states by law, a “detainment” — during which an individual is not free to leave — is a step further than a field interview because it is no longer consensual.
In most large California jurisdictions, for example, any instances in which a person is detained, or restricted from leaving by the police, must be reported to the state under the Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015, whereas field interviews are “explicitly NOT RIPA reportable stops” because the individual can leave at any time, according to Emily G. Owens, a criminology professor at the University of California, Irvine.
“Field interviews and Detainment are certainly different things, and the phrase shouldn’t be used interchangeably,” she wrote in an email, though she noted that the line between the two can be “slippery and subject to legal wrangling after the fact.”
A close partner of HUPD, the Cambridge Police Department, also differentiates between the two terms.
CPD defines a “field interview” as an interaction “limited by a consensual encounter” that “does not escalate to a formal stop and/or frisk,” according to department policies posted online.
CPD notes in its policies that field interviews are “extremely important methods” used by police to intervene in situations where there is insufficient evidence for a formal stop.
“The line between a field interview and an investigatory stop, however, is a fine one, and is necessarily fact specific,” CPD’s policies read.
CPD's policy notes that an officer can approach an individual to strike up a conversation, ask an individual to identify themselves and their business, note an individual’s physical description, and request permission to take an individual’s photograph, though permission may be denied.
“An officer, however, may not employ words or conduct from which a reasonable person would conclude that he/she is not free to leave,” CPD's policies around field interviews states.
Robert Kenter, the director of law enforcement field engagement at Yale’s Center for Policing Equity, said after hearing Tripathy’s account of his interaction with Harvard police officers that he believes HUPD conducted a field interview on Tripathy. Still, he said the stop may have gone beyond a typical field interview because it was not consensual.
“It is certainly a field interview and considering the circumstances, it may be a Terry stop or maybe a investigatory detention,” Kenter said. “It was obviously nonconsensual because he wasn’t free to leave, so he was being detained.”
Similarly, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, a professional association made up of more than 4,000 police executives at higher education institutions, differentiates a “field interview” from a formal stop, which they call an “arrest.”
“An individual has been arrested when he or she is not free to go, regardless of whether formal words of arrest have been used,” IACLEA’s accreditation requirements, a list of rules that must be followed by schools that wish to become members, read.
HUPD is not an IACLEA-accredited agency. The independent review of the department set in motion by University President Lawrence S. Bacow last year, however, recommends HUPD “compare and update HUPD policies and practices in light of various IACLEA standards.”
In a page on its website outlining affiliates’ “rights and responsibilities,” HUPD does not define the terms “field interview” or “detainment.” HUPD's website, however, notes “it is occasionally necessary for HUPD officers to stop members of the University community and ask for information.”
Kenter said it could be helpful for HUPD to provide an index of terms in its daily crime logs to clarify its policies to Harvard affiliates.
“That may be helpful if they offer that," he said. "What’s the difference between a field interview and someone who’s detained?”
Though he said he was “relatively unaffected” by the incident, Tripathy said this incident with HUPD confirms his belief that police are often dishonest.
“I’m still in a position of privilege where I don’t need to be terribly worried, but I do want to put forth the evidence that, yes, this is just a common thing that typically happens.”
—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.