The party life at Yale has changed.
When I arrived here three years ago, the Yale Police Department was seen as the benevolent protector of Yale students, and the University administration had a safety-first attitude toward regulating student partying. As of this year, much has obviously changed. The YPD can hardly be seen as benevolent, and the administration seems increasingly hostile as well.
The conventional explanation from school and police department officials is to say the new law passed last fall, which criminalized possession of alcohol by minors, has made them able/responsible/obligated to change their approach to parties — if they acknowledge any change in practices at all. Nevertheless, there was hardly any noticeable change last year when the law first took effect, and yet this year has seen markedly different behavior. On- and off-campus parties are routinely broken up. Fines are frequently issued for underage imbibers.
It’s not so shocking that the actions of the police have changed in response to the new law, but the gusto with which they have taken up their new enforcement efforts is shocking.
According to reports, New Haven police broke up a freshman party in Bingham Hall before the bash had even started. One friend’s dorm-room party was dissolved over a noise complaint at 11 on a Friday night. Last I checked, the NHPD only handled issues that the YPD could not (although these days the YPD is hardly preferable to the NHPD), and there are no grounds for a noise complaint on a weekend before 1 a.m.
The most outrageous example, however, is the breakup of the Pierson Inferno last weekend at the ignorant behest of Pierson College Dean Amerigo Fabbri. Notwithstanding the fact that the dean should have known about the college-organized event, his actions are still condemnable.
As an important institution of the Pierson College community, Fabbri should have taken the time to see what was happening in the courtyard. If he found a problem, like renegade partiers, he should have tried first to deal with it by himself. Calling the police should be an action taken only in serious situations or as a last resort. By calling the police without leaving his apartment, he acts more like a crotchety octogenarian rather than a responsible leader and advisor to his residential college.
Although Fabbri is perhaps the most extreme case, he is far from alone among the Yale College administration in contributing to a new, more hostile attitude toward on-campus parties. In the past, deans and masters have responded to problems and out-of-control parties by dealing with resulting issues internally when possible; however, they are more often deferring responsibility to the police.
The laws regarding the drinking age in Connecticut and possession by minors are here to stay (students, voters with political influence, have failed to even try to take action in response). Nevertheless, as the difference between last year and this year has shown, police and the administration do have flexibility in their actions toward parties. And this semester, they have exercised it for the worse.
Recently, New Haven made a smart decision about law enforcement, namely the decision to issue resident ID cards to illegal immigrants. Even without a formal decision regarding the enforcement of underage drinking laws, policing is a matter of allocating and targeting scarce resources to the most pressing problems. It should be clear enough to anyone who has been here this school year that New Haven has more serious crime problems than underage drinking. Each incremental amount of effort spent on policing underage drinking is less time spent policing the not-so-safe streets of our city.
Not only is the current police stance unfortunate for general crime, but it is unfortunate for the “problem” of underage drinking. The unintended consequences of cracking down on parties are potentially huge. As other schools who have taken less of a safety-first approach have demonstrated, tougher enforcement will hardly stop college students from drinking and partying. But it can make underage drinking less safe.
These days, students are far less likely to trust the YPD or even their college’s deans and masters. While students have never before had to hesitate in calling the police to a party if another student needs medical attention, the current enforcement regime makes them reluctant to seek help because they fear fines and punishment.
The great tragedy of the new enforcement regime is neither the invasion of students’ homes nor the destruction of trust in the college community, although these are tragic enough. It is the potential for a student to die from drinking when the death could have been prevented with medical attention that was not sought because of fear of punishment.
While I hope Yale never sees such a tragedy, the YPD, NHPD and University administration have increased the probability that it will.
Patrick Ward is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.