Harvard University Police Chief Victor A. Clay clarified the department’s response to an April 3 swatting attack at Leverett House in a Friday interview with The Crimson, expressing his support for written demands made by students and alumni in the wake of the incident.
In the interview, Clay acknowledged student criticism and said the University “dropped the ball” by not issuing a statement to students sooner. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana first emailed students about the swatting attack roughly 66 hours after it took place, drawing criticism from affiliates.
“A very vulnerable part of our community was targeted and affected by this incident,” Clay said. “I’ve said this before: We took too long to talk to them. There was this delay that I still don’t understand why it occurred.”
On the morning of April 3, four Black undergraduates in Leverett House were ordered out of their rooms at gunpoint by HUPD officers responding to a false 911 call from an individual claiming to be armed and holding a woman hostage.
Clay said that the reason a campus-wide alert didn’t go out during the time of the attack was because the situation “was confined to a very small space, and we already had the problem contained.”
“This thing that was being reported to us did not affect Longwood, or the Divinity School, or the Business School — it affected Leverett House,” Clay said. “So to send out an alert at three o'clock in the morning may have brought more people into the problem.”
Clay added that it was a “tactical decision” not to send a MessageMe alert to students.
Jarah K. Cotton ’23, one of the students in the Leverett suite, told The Crimson in April that she believes an email alert should have been sent, noting the threat posed by a potential shooter.
“They clearly, again, thought it was a serious threat because they had assault rifles pointed at our faces,” Cotton said. “I feel like if it warrants that kind of response, it most definitely warrants an email.”
In the interview, Clay also acknowledged a letter sent to administrators by 45 Harvard organizations in response to the swatting attack, which criticized the University’s response and listed five demands: a University-wide statement acknowledging the “significant racial impact” of the swatting, a thorough HUPD investigation, increased HUPD transparency and accountability, “proactive” mental health support, and an in-person town hall by administrators.
“I agree with it 100 percent,” Clay said. “I don’t think their demands were unreasonable at all.”
Clay, who came to HUPD with a pledge for reform, added that he supports holding a town hall “if it’s a fruitful conversation” and if administrators are willing to participate.
“You learn a whole lot from the community when you give them an opportunity to speak, right?” Clay said. “But if it’s just an opportunity for one or two folks with a very specific intent to shout you down or gain popularity on social media — not for it at all.”
Clay also stressed that “there’s a human side to both sides of this conversation” and that HUPD is “hurting” along with students over the incident.
“Every single officer involved in the Leverett House incident really wants to talk to the students because they are actually hurting right now,” he said. “The fact that they feel that they traumatized these students even more than being targeted by the caller — it affects the officers.”
Clay said after an HUPD meeting Thursday, officers told him that they wanted to talk to the students and explain that they are “not there to intimidate” or “hurt” them.
Clay added that he empathizes with the students involved due to his identity as a Black man.
“I am from the Black community,” Clay said. “I know what they’re feeling. I know exactly what they’re feeling.”
He added that he was frustrated that the department had been tricked into responding to the swatting call.
“This was a large hoax, and they’re playing this game across the country,” Clay said. “It really bothered me that he — first of all — got Harvard. He got us. And secondly, he’s gonna get a lot of — in whatever weird little world he lives in — a lot of credibility from doing that.”
Clay also addressed the use of assault rifles and riot gear by the HUPD officers who conducted the raid, saying that the department’s equipment is “appropriate,” though adding that he believes more training on their use is necessary.
“I don’t think we’re militarized at all. I think we have the weaponry that is minimally adequate considering the amount of violence in the United States, ” Clay said.
Asked about the January Cambridge Police killing of 20-year-0ld University of Massachusetts Boston student Sayed Faisal, Clay said he doesn’t believe any police department is “appropriately equipped” to handle mental health crises.
“I’m a huge proponent of a partnership with mental health professionals, whether they be embedded in a police department or responsible for a co-response model,” he added.
“We are all desperately waiting for somebody to take the lead on this and say we are no longer going to allow 911 — the police department — to be the primary responder to mental health crises,” Clay said of police around the country. “Somebody else has to come in and do this because by calling a cop to a mental health crisis, you limit the response.”
At the end of the interview, Clay expressed gratitude toward his staff for their “continued effort and diligence.”
“There have been some staff here who have given 100 percent effort to keep this department afloat and moving forward, and they are often not recognized,” Clay said. “They’re not thanked enough.”
“Culture change is tough,” he said. “But it’s not impossible. And if it’s not impossible, I’m going to do it.”