Dude, Where’s My Laptop?: Property Theft at HLS


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Harvard Law School may seem to be a world unto itself, but the school in fact shares a zip code with tens of thousands of non-law students, some of whom traverse the campus daily. Harvard undergraduates and Lesley students, local residents, and visitors pass through Harkness Commons daily, and frequent the underground tunnels. Although the law school often feels like a self-contained community, the open campus serves as a stomping ground for a diverse local and tourist population, and as such, is exposed to a variety of criminal activity.

“It’s easy to become complacent and let your guard down, because the surroundings are familiar and you see a lot of the same faces every day,” said Dan Koltlar, a 2L visiting from Tulane Law School.

The Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) publishes university-wide daily police logs online but does not log crimes on the HLS campus separately. Annual criminal statistics also detail all crimes reported across all Harvard campuses. No comparisons are made between schools, although the location of each complaint is noted.

Steven Catalano, press officer for HUPD, said the vast majority of reports involve property crimes, which generally go unsolved. Of those, larcenies involving credit cards have the best chances for resolution, thanks to evidence secured from surveillance cameras.

The Public Police Log from Nov. 7 documents four separate theft reports. Stolen items included a laptop, a suitcase containing $1000 worth of valuables, an I-Pod, and a wallet with over $50 in cash. None of the thefts occurred on the law school campus.

Very few property thefts involve force, Catalano said. Rather, valuables usually disappear from offices or dorm rooms left unlocked and unattended.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” said 1L David Joffe. “People [in the Gropius dorms] frequently leave their doors unlocked, whether they’re taking a shower or going to class. And at any given moment in Langdell, you can be sure that there are at least five unattended laptops, and three times as many unattended backpacks.”

Signs warning against the propping of external doors to residence halls are largely ignored, particularly during moving periods. Individuals who do not belong in a particular building sometimes “piggyback,” waiting for a resident to arrive with a key and then following the person inside. Both the HLS Dean of Students Office and HUPD warn against propping doors and encourage students to refuse unfamiliar persons access to dormitories.

HUPD also strongly advocates all university students to register their laptops and bicycles in an effort to deter theft, and assist in the recovery of stolen valuables.

“[HUPD has] registered 10,000 computers since this program began, and 237 of those have gone lost or stolen, most outside of the university,” Catalano said. “Only eight registered computers have been lost or stolen on campus.”

But Catalano admitted that the small number of reports may not signify that registration is actually deterring potential thieves, but simply reflects the population of those who register their computers.

“Someone who actually takes the time to register their [sic] laptop is probably not going to put the laptop in the position where it is going to be stolen,” he said.

Students can register their laptops online at the HUPD website (www.hupd.harvard.edu) or through the Security Tracking of Office Property program (www.stoptheft.com). Earlier this semester, HUPD manned a table in Harkness Commons, fielding questions about the free program and registering notebook computers. Representatives also distributed information about bicycle registration, which can be completed for a nominal fee at the HUPD site or in person at police headquarters.

“[The program] has helped in the recovery of lost computers more than in the recovery of stolen ones,” Catalano said. “We’ve located lots of registered laptops on planes, trains, and automobiles, right where students have left them.”

Catalano added that the program appears to have had some deterrent effect. He related a story about a Harvard graduate student in Somerville who suffered a break-in last year. There was evidence that the perpetrator had touched the student’s computer. The student and police believe that the thief decided not to take the laptop once he noticed the registration plate.

In addition to registration of valuables, HUPD recommends that students use two different locking mechanisms to protect bicycles, and advises against sharing credit card or other sensitive information over the telephone.

Property theft may be the most common campus crimes, but police and students agree that it is also the most preventable.

“It’s almost always a matter of just taking your stuff with you,” Joffe said. “When you leave a Blackberry on a table in the Hark, you’re asking for trouble.”

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