Yale Police and the Threat of Lethal Force

Last Saturday, a member of the Yale Police pulled a gun on a young student for matching a description of a thief in the area. That student happened to be the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who wrote about the incident with justifiable anger and fear.

The incident drew significant attention, and in a statement made Monday night, Peter Salovey, President of Yale; Jonathan Holloway, the Dean of Yale College; and Yale’s Chief of Police Ronnell Higgins, addressed what happened and referred to its implications. It begins:

"The Yale Police Department’s response to a crime in progress on Saturday evening has generated substantial and critical conversations on campus and beyond. A Yale police officer detained an African American Yale College student who was in the vicinity of a reported crime, and who closely matched the physical description—including items of clothing—of the suspect. The actual suspect was found and arrested a short distance away."

Salovey, Holloway, and Higgins also wanted to quell comparisons to incidents in recent memory:

"What happened on Cross Campus on Saturday is not a replay of what happened in Ferguson; Staten Island; Cleveland; or so many other places in our time and over time in the United States. The officer, who himself is African American, was responding to a specific description relayed by individuals who had reported a crime in progress."

The message is accurate that what happened “is not a replay” in that the officer did not apply lethal force. But in drawing his gun, the officer threatened to use it in a situation that did not warrant it. Why? The email says that a thorough internal investigation will take place to answer that very question. 

By all current accounts, the suspect was not reported as armed. Police officers are supposed to have many tools to subdue and apprehend suspects without lethal force. The community is troubled by this story, and the problem is not that a student was questioned by a police officer; the response was disproportionate in the face of the non-violent offense. Lethal force makes the conversation especially urgent.

Some context for New Haven’s atmosphere might be helpful. In the two years I spent on Yale’s campus, the tension between the town and gown was palpable. Police Chief Higgins emails alerts addressed to “the Yale community” when crimes are reported to Yale Police, making the Yale community hyper-aware of the potential dangers, presumably from those outside Yale. The emails identify the crime’s victims and the suspect as members of Yale, or not. Accordingly the city is divided into “us” or “them.” Sometimes the visual cues as to where you are a member are subtle, other times, less so. In this particular student’s case, how he looked put him at the end of a gun.

A brief example: Late at night, I would bike past security officers standing outside the Divinity School campus, expecting that they wouldn’t stop me. They never did. Some African American friends, also students, did not always have the same expectation. They have had experiences ranging from quiet discomfort to direct and unmerited confrontation with members of Yale security, and the police.

When guns are drawn—when the stakes are raised to living or dying based on split-second decisions made by police in a society at odds with itself on issues of race—the community is right to say, “Enough. We demand better.” More accountability for the procedures around the use and direct threat of lethal force is a beginning.

Maria Bowler is the former assistant digital editor of Commonweal. 

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