The report of the ad-hoc panel reviewing the Yale Police Department’s internal investigation into the detainment of Tahj Blow ’16 demonstrates the lengths the University will go to investigate misconduct and allay public concern that it has wronged one of its members.
The University’s response has been staggering in its speed, breadth and detail, culminating in yesterday’s report, whose authors span race, expertise and Yale affiliation. They are Marvin Chun, master of Berkeley College; Charles Reynolds, former president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and a consulting expert on policing; and Stephen Robinson, a former U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York.
Rightly, the report does not dispute the “startling and upsetting nature” of the Jan. 24 incident, in which a Yale Police officer stopped Blow, drawing his gun though not aiming it at the junior ecology and evolutionary biology major, instructing him to lie face down on the ground. Rightly, too, the panel does not re-investigate the incident, which occurred in the context of a campus search for a suspected burglar, the description of whom closely matched Blow’s appearance and clothing, according to the report.
This fact — and the fact that an extensive internal police investigation found that the officer’s actions complied with department policy — does not make it less frightening that a student exiting the library on a Saturday evening was forced to the ground by an armed police officer.
Nor does it strip the incident of its troubling racial associations. Just yesterday, Charles Blow, Tahj’s father and a columnist for The New York Times, wrote of the brutal beating of Floyd Dent, a black autoworker, by police officers in Inkster, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. Earlier this month, Martese Johnson, a black student at the University of Virginia, was bloodied by police during an arrest outside a Charlottesville bar. Here in New Haven, protesters have questioned whether a New Haven Police officer used undue force in detaining a young woman at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The confrontation on Cross Campus seemed to bring the dangerous intersection of policing, race and violence — which reached a fever pitch over the summer with the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — to Yale’s gates. It is unimaginable that something similar would have happened to a white student, a truth not refuted by the color of the officer’s skin or the angle at which he held his gun.
Despite the assurance of University President Peter Salovey that what happened was “not a replay of what happened” in Ferguson or Staten Island, it is proof that Yale is long overdue for a conversation about race — about the lines we draw among ourselves as students and between Yale, which is mostly white, and New Haven, where racial minorities are the majority. The University is complicit in the myth that New Haven is a dark unknown, lurking beyond the bookstore on Broadway or anywhere outside a narrow pathway to East Rock Park. Teaching freshmen that the population of New Haven poses a threat to their safety legitimates the militarization of our campus.
The panel’s report does not strike at these problems.
It does, however, make several meaningful suggestions. Most substantively, the panel recommends that the YPD require all officers to wear body cameras while on duty. Officials across the country have backed this move, designed to enable review of police encounters. President Barack Obama has requested millions of dollars to equip law enforcement with cameras.
Currently, only one Yale Police supervisor per shift is required to wear a camera, and rules about when they must be switched on are unclear. Cameras do not ensure consensus, as the case of Eric Garner, recorded on a phone, laid bare. Still, videos can be reviewed; they provide a basis for scrutiny and investigation.
In its final recommendation, the panel asks that Yale “emphasize its continued commitment to providing a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment for its students, faculty, staff and visitors.” This statement is so vague as to mean virtually nothing, obscuring the lessons — about racial bias and the use of force — we should draw from Blow’s run-in with the YPD.
So when the report suggests that the University hold public panels on race, prejudice and policing, it gets halfway there. Conversations must spill out from these events — including tonight’s teach-in on Ferguson — and begin to make “troubling” events inconceivable.