If the YPD officer had simply asked Blow for his identification card, the incident would have been completely lawful. The student was on private property, YPD officers were investigating a felony in progress and Blow “closely matched the physical description” of the suspect, according to a Monday email signed by University President Peter Salovey, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and YPD Chief Ronnell Higgins. However, the YPD officer did not simply stop Blow for questioning. Rather, he restrained Blow with the threat of lethal force. These facts raise the question of whether the circumstances justified the threat of lethal force.
Police officers in the United States are trained to follow procedures relating to the use and escalation of coercive force. These policies vary from department to department, but according to the National Institute of Justice, officers in most law enforcement agencies should only use lethal force or the threat thereof in situations where “a suspect poses a serious threat to the officer or another individual.” At the very least, officers should probably follow the dictum, “don’t point a gun at anything you do not want to shoot.” From what little we know about Blow’s case, the YPD officer’s actions appear to violate both proper police procedure and common-sense gun handling practices.
From preliminary accounts published by Blow’s father in a Times column on Monday and a Sunday story in the News, Saturday’s events appear to be clear-cut: This was yet another case of excessive police force against a young black man. However, on Monday, Salovey, Holloway and Higgins announced that an internal investigation into the incident would begin. Until the results of this ongoing investigation are published or firsthand accounts by witnesses or the police officer in question emerge, the Yale community should not jump to conclusions. There is a shortage of information for observers to make well-reasoned judgments about Blow’s detainment, and attempts to jump to conclusions about the YPD officer’s actions are indefensible.
The use of force is always highly dependent on context. We don’t know what was going through the officer’s head or what he thought he saw when he decided to pull out a firearm.
Allegations of racial bias are even more premature. Racial bias in police departments is difficult to prove with individual events. Rather, bias is best proved by a clear and persistent pattern of differential treatment between racial groups. In Blow’s case, it is unclear whether race played a part in the officer’s use of force. There is no evidence — at least not public — that suggests the YPD has a history of racially motivated policing. In fact, the YPD is a relatively diverse and well-trained police department.
The discourse surrounding Blow’s detention highlights a larger problem in the contemporary civil rights movement. Advocates rely too often on individual cases to demonstrate racially motivated police discrimination. But individual cases — even those as well-publicized as the deaths of Eric Garner or Michael Brown — are murky and uncertain, ultimately failing to prove the extent of racism in police forces. Instead, advocates should rely on data-driven approaches to prove racially motivated policing, which likely do exist. Analysis grounded in numbers can reveal patterns with a degree of certainty not mired in the “what ifs” associated with individual cases.
I understand the frustrations of those who believe the police officer’s seemingly disproportionate use of force arose from racism. Yet it’s too easy to assume without question that Blow’s case is a manifestation of widespread police discrimination, and dismiss skeptical observers as apologists for institutionalized racism. Instead of lambasting the YPD without hearing the officer’s account, I challenge Yalies to both exercise restrain and accept — for now at least — the uncertainty that surrounds Saturday’s events.
Yume Hoshijima is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.