About a year ago the arrests of eight Yale University employees outside Yale-New Haven Hospital called the police powers of the Hospital’s constables into question. The workers, two graduate students in medicine and six employees of the Yale Medical School, were arrested, detained, and charged with criminal trespass for distributing leaflets outside hospital buildings. As a result of this dubiously legal action, hospital constables were ultimately stripped of their arrest powers.

Recently the issue has arisen again, this time in relation to the Ward 1 aldermanic race. In his column (“Ward 1 needs a consensus builder” 10/22) Calhoun Master William Sledge dismissed the candidacy of incumbent Alderman Ben Healey due to his actions on the hospital constables issue.

At the request of union members, I accompanied four of the leafletters on Sept. 10, 2002 and personally witnessed their arrest. While I respect Sledge’s concerns, I believe his editorial exhibits an extremely weak grasp of both the facts of the case and its broader implications. He tries to frame the debate over police powers in terms of “special interests” and not free speech. So, out of respect for the prospective voters in Ward 1, and the eight members of our university who faced a year in jail for handing out pieces of paper, I’d like to get the true facts out in the open.

First, free passage into the hospital was in no way obstructed by the leafletters, nor were employees or patients prevented from entrance. I can say so with certainty because I watched people enter with my own eyes. The leafletters were arrested because of what was on their leaflets, not where they were standing. And as such, the conflict had nothing to do with “criminal trespass” and everything to do with free speech. Jorge Perez (Board of Aldermen President and co-author of the resolution) wrote in a Nov. 17th letter to the New Haven Register that “[no one was] able to explain how an individual with privileges to enter a building on a daily basis could be charged with trespassing.”

Second, Hospital constables aren’t city cops, they are private security forces serving a private corporation, with arrest powers granted them by the New Haven Board of Police Commissioners and the mayor. Being the only constabulary force in New Haven, Hospital constables enjoyed a unique city benefit that they abused, prompting the Board of Aldermen to vote 18-2-2 to recommend its revocation. After extensive hearings, the Board of Police Commissioners voted 4-1 to revoke arrest powers, with Commissioner John Einhorn arguing that “the general concept of private companies having special police powers, it doesn’t belong in the 21st century.” (New Haven Register, “Constables’ arrest powers likely to cease” 12/12/2002)

Third, contrary to what Sledge claims, the constables’ loss of arrest powers has no bearing on emergency response times, patient training, or on-site policing. Constables retain all the authority and freedom that they possessed before the incident, which includes detaining people, policing hospital grounds, and assisting staff and patients in emergencies. They just can’t physically hand you a citation. And, given that the constables and the Hospital administration display a tendency to abuse those arrest powers in attacking freedom of speech, removing them seems an appropriate response that produces zero impact on hospital safety.

But the worst oversights in Sledge’s editorial aren’t factual. The crucial point in the upcoming Ward 1 race is that while Dan Kruger claims to be a “consensus builder,” Healey actually builds consensus. He brings students, elected officials, community groups and New Haven citizens together around issues that affect us all — from domestic partnership to downtown revitalization, from clean elections to clean sidewalks. I see his strong base of student support and the success of his endeavors on the board as evidence of this. Meanwhile, despite Sledge’s assertions, Kruger has yet to prove his effectiveness in advocating progressive change in New Haven, even on his core campaign issues like transportation and public health.

In his editorial, Sledge complains that special interests have corrupted Healey’s candidacy. But at the Hospital the “special interest” was free speech. Healey and the rest of the Board, along with Mayor DeStefano, were able to uphold free speech without compromising Hospital safety in the slightest. That’s why we elected them — to uphold our rights, be our voice in government, and to generally do the right thing whenever possible. For the sake of both patients and staff at Yale-New Haven Hospital, I’m glad they did.

Ultimately, this election has much more to do with experience and creative policy than with special interests. I believe that Kruger and Sledge are trying to foster paranoia around “special interests” to distract voters from the central (and swiftly growing) problem of Kruger’s candidacy: he has made a handful of campaign promises without offering any concrete policy plans.

On the constable issue, as with many others, Healey proved to me his commitment and willingness to challenge broken policies, as well as his ability to listen to constituents and skill in building the kind of coalitions that create substantive change. That, above all, is what Yale students need from their representative to the Board of Aldermen.

Alek Felstiner is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.