News’ View: Punishment must suit the crime

Something is wrong when police action ends with dozens left crying and confused. Something is wrong when video recording shows police officers taunting: “Anybody else, who’s next?” Something is wrong when a college student is Tasered and beaten.

Through frantic texts, e-mails and phone calls over the weekend, we have learned of these wrongs early Saturday morning, when New Haven police, some in what appeared to be SWAT gear, and state liquor control agents raided the Morse-Stiles screw at Elevate.

We still do not fully know what happened at the club, but we do know that about a week ago, just before a Quinnipiac student was arrested for filming another arrest, he recorded a police officer swearing at and shoving him.

These actions have followed Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s announcement of “Operation Nightlife,” an initiative to curb violence in the downtown entertainment district. If these first two weeks are any indication of how the program will run, though, we have seen enough.

The reasons behind Operation Nightlife are legitimate. A fight among underage patrons in an overcrowded area led to yet another shooting two weeks ago. As such, city officials should be commended for taking action to compel club owners to prevent overcrowded clubs and underage drinking, both of which police have linked to the violence. We applaud them for trying to create a safe, calm downtown.

But sending officers equipped with assault rifles into a crowded, otherwise nonviolent party creates an atmosphere that is neither calm nor safe. Moreover, rather than make community members feel secure knowing police are on the streets, such action creates fear of the police themselves.

Aside from the fear they create, the Operation Nightlife task forces require significant sacrifice of city resources. On Saturday, for instance, a fight broke out less than a block from Elevate, which might have been prevented had some of the police at the party been outside.

The police presence was excessive. So we’re glad that the police do not plan to employ such a force every weekend. But considering the mission of Operation Nightlife, we question whether a dozen or so officers, assault rifles and dogs should be used in response to a tip of underage drinking at a college party.

In recent statements, police have attempted to justify the degree of police presence by using the fact that overcrowding at Elevate could have been dangerous. The club was filled far beyond capacity, something Elevate officials and members of the Ezra Stiles and Morse student activities committees should have worked harder to prevent.

But what was surely and, as it turned out, demonstrably much more dangerous was the excessive force of the police response. Using a task force to clear out a large, crowded party served only to aggravate the situation and punished all who happened to be there, instead of those responsible.

Perhaps our biggest worry is that in these past two weeks, we have begun to see a change in police demeanor. A City Hall mandate to crack down on nightlife does not give anyone the excuse to taunt bystanders or use force unless absolutely necessary.

Thus, as long as the form of Operation Nightlife that allowed for last weekend’s incident is in effect, we commend the University for reaching out to students who feel victimized. Still, we know that not all members of the New Haven community have the same resources we do, and we know that there were two other raids Saturday morning.

If the aggression seen at Elevate is the norm, it is obvious that Operation Nightlife is wrong for New Haven.

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