Lance is back.
It’s the video all the freshmen have been waiting for, and the one that upperclassmen laugh about in memory. An unfortunate freshman, Lance, a hapless figure straight from the late ’80s, just doesn’t understand the concept of personal safety. His computer is stolen from his residential college library, his “sweet” bike is taken from the rack, and he’s attacked on his way from a truly “radical” frat party.
The hundreds of sweaty freshmen from Berkeley, Branford, Calhoun and Pierson Colleges were the last group to sit in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall on Saturday afternoon. Talking among each other as if they’d known each other for years, the freshmen exuded an excitement perhaps excessive for the annual safety talk.
“I hear the video is hilarious,” a girl in front of me said, turning to her neighbor who nodded in agreement. Other freshmen around her are exchanging phone numbers, recalling events of the past 24 hours and two are even beginning to discuss classes.
All of a sudden, it went quiet. The police were there to talk.
Though their delivery was light-hearted and hilarious, Assistant Chiefs of Yale Police Michael Patten and Steve Woznyk had a clear message for the group: Be smart, because you’re not entirely safe.
“You should feel comfortable here,” he said. “But we can’t do it all.”
The freshman sit silently, captivated by the passing mentions of homicide, active shooters and an emergency alert system.
“Are we safe here?” a hushed voice from behind me asks.
THE GOOD NEWS
“Right next to the Yale campus, there is a dangerous neighborhood.”
That’s what a reporter from the Today Show said when covering the murder of student Annie Le GRD ’13 in 2009. It was a unique time in Yale’s history, when reporters flooded the campus to scrutinize the safety of the nation’s “best and brightest” students. The cameras soon left, a suspect was found and the campus began to move on, but the reporter’s words still strike a chord with students, parents and visitors alike.
Last week, the News sent a survey to more than 400 students asking them about campus safety. Seventy-nine responded, spanning all class years and backgrounds.
Sixty percent of surveyed students said they were at least “somewhat concerned” about their safety on campus and in New Haven. But in a survey of the freshmen class in August, only 43 percent offered the same opinion. A shift in attitude evidently occurs after students descend on campus. The survey results show that, as time goes on, students become more concerned with their safety in the city. All of the students who said they were “very concerned” for their safety on campus were upperclassmen. It’s difficult to say why this may be: Respondents could have been victims of crime, heard one too many cautionary tale or maybe are simply unnerved by the frequency of “emails from the Chief.”
Gabriela Bucay ’16 said upperclassmen are typically more aware of what’s going on in the surrounding areas than freshmen. For some, she speculates, that means focusing on the negatives, while she and others see the differences between a college and a city and the common sense necessary for living in an urban environment.
Although it isn’t the only Ivy League school in an urban area, Yale is still widely disparaged for its perceived lack of safety. Prospective students turn to College Confidential to ask if the campus is safe (sample: “If I’m next to a bluelight, are muggers less likely to mug me?” from SquealOfaRaven), and tour guides are frequently asked a similar question. A video by the Harvard comedy group On Harvard Time mocking the notorious music video by the admissions office, “That’s Why I Chose Yale,” points at New Haven’s crime data as a reason why students might consider going to Harvard instead.
But the Yale and New Haven Police Departments are pushing back against the stereotypes, highlighting that the number of crimes in New Haven is going down. And it is. In 1990, according to statistics published by local analytic group DataHaven, there were 16,104 crimes in the New Haven area. Twenty-four percent of these crimes were classified as “violent crimes,” and there were 31 homicides. Crime has fallen dramatically since then. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of crimes in the city has almost halved. The most recent data published on the New Haven Police Department’s website revealed that there were 8,386 crimes reported in 2012, a slight increase from 2009.
In the 1990 Commencement issue of the News, an article recognized the rising crimerate, particularly how fast crime swept onto campus, making students victims of crime more than ever before. In response, crime prevention efforts were boosted and YPD added more officers. But no awareness program was as jarring as the experience of the student body.
“Security consciousness has improved tremendously just because of the number of thefts and robberies and major crimes since I’ve been here,” then-Yale College Council President Margaret Chen ’90 told the News in 1990.
Twenty-five years ago, when Chen and her classmates were at Yale, New Haven was the fourth-poorest city in the country. Now, the median household income in New Haven is higher than that of the whole United States. Now, compared to the larger student body, Patten said, the number of students who are actually victims of crime is consistently small. Of the 79 students surveyed by the News, just four had been the victim of a crime since arriving at Yale. And even though students interviewed said they’ve frequently heard talk of crime, few knew someone who had been an actual victim, particularly if the crime was violent.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that an overwhelming majority of survey respondents said they felt safe on Yale’s campus. The police officers assured both freshmen and parents during Camp Yale that students have options if they ever feel unsafe. They can take the shuttle, call an officer to walk with them or they can look for a blue light, where students have a direct line to the police station. It is difficult to ignore the constant reminders that the YPD is definitely watching when it employs 84 officers, all of whom were trained with the New Haven Police Department at their police academy. This is not to mention the 150 security officers walking around campus wearing high-visibility jackets.
THE BAD NEWS
Three of the four crime victims who self-identified in the News’ survey said that the incident had occurred on campus. On average, according to Woznyk, around 300 crimes happen on campus every year, roughly one crime a day when students are in the city. However, 24 percent of students surveyed said they think the data for the previous semester was above average. Detailed crime statistics have yet to be released, but the department’s daily crime log reveals that this minority opinion of the student body could be right.
In accordance with the Clery Act, the YPD publishes a daily crime log, viewable on their website. While most students are unaware of it, it provides everyone with a record of what crimes have been reported to YPD, or in the vicinity of their jurisdiction that day. The daily crime logs for the summer months — from May 7 to last weekend — show 353 reports made to the campus police department over the course of 113 days. A hundred and one of these reports ended in an arrest. A small minority of these crimes were not time-sensitive: two reports were made about events that had happened earlier in the school year. Regardless, when considering that the average number of crimes is supposedly 300 per school year, it is shocking to see 353 reports spanning a short period of time, particularly when 37 of these occurred within residential colleges and on Old Campus. Twenty-four crimes were reported on Old Campus, and the residential colleges weren’t exempt either. There were five crimes reported in Branford, three in Ezra Stiles and Morse, two each in Davenport, Saybrook and Silliman and one each in Calhoun and Jonathan Edwards. Ironically, 82 percent of students said their residential college dorm was the place they felt safest, with Broadway and the Yale Bookstore coming in second.
Crimes in the residential colleges don’t constitute a large percentage of overall crime, but they are sufficient to disrupt a sense of safety behind the gates. Within the gates, however, the kind of crime seems to align with what the freshmen heard last weekend. As Patten told them and their parents, close to 85 percent of crime on campus is theft, most of the stolen items being unattended electronics.
Seeing a police officer in a dining hall doesn’t stop people from neglecting their safety. Patten told freshmen and parents alike that students mistakenly use their phones as “placeholders” while they go to get their food from the kitchen areas. While they do this, the assistant chief will frequently take the phone to prove a point to the student.
“It works,” he told the parents. “They panic.”
His argument to the incoming freshmen was to be smart about personal belongings. While their iPhones and laptops may be worth more than the cellular telephone device depicted in the safety video, the message is the same: If you stop leaving your expensive stuff everywhere, the amount of theft on campus will go down. Furthermore, students concerned for their safety should take note of the services offered to them during the nighttime hours. Patten and Woznyk described the personal shuttle system to the freshmen, letting them know that officers can also accompany students as they walk to various locations on campus. It’s depicted as something that everyone does. The personal shuttle service provides more than 15,000 rides a month. According to the News’ survey, these rides do not appeal to everyone. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they had never used YPD’s services, and only 4 percent said they use them regularly. Of those that used the services, 66 percent were females, and all those that use the service regularly are now seniors.
While theft may be the most common crime on campus, it cannot be ignored that Yale often plays host to more high-profile crimes. Headlines this year have depicted sexual assaults, reports of gunshots outside of Toad’s Place and records of the city’s homicides, including the horrific finding of dismembered limbs minutes from campus. While these may be later identified as rare events, it is something students take with them. Eight percent of survey respondents said they thought assault was the most common crime on campus, and four percent said the same about sexual misconduct, when these crimes only constitute a minuscule portion of crimes reported.
As Patten told the freshmen, the majority of crime that occurs on campus is larceny and theft. In 2013, according to Yale’s formal annual security and fire safety report, there were 22 forcible sex offenses reported to YPD and no aggravated assaults. Over 140 crimes were classified as a form of theft.
BEYOND THE IVORY TOWERS
Students who stay here over the summer often choose to live off-campus, leaving vacant rooms on-campus for international visitors or overeager high school students with lanyards and indistinguishable backpacks. But, now more than ever, students are making the decision to live off-campus for the whole school year instead of within the gates of their residential college.
And, while the freedom of living beyond those gates can sound appealing to the rising junior or senior, it can bring new challenges and new safety concerns. Most students in the News’ survey listed the area of Howe Street and Dwight Street as the place they feared most, followed by Dixwell Avenue and the New Haven Green. While Dixwell and the New Haven Green fall outside of the boundaries that traditionally define campus, Howe and Dwight Streets are the home of many upperclassmen who live off-campus.
Students living in the area, however, contested the results of the News’ survey, saying that they did not feel that the neighborhood they live in was the “dangerous” part of campus as identified by survey respondents. Rafi Bildner ’16 said he was saddened to hear that there was a significant group of students who perceived the neighborhood as dangerous.
“I’ve found it to be a vibrant neighborhood, full of life,” he said. After a year living in the area, he said the fear of New Haven is “incredibly unhealthy.”
Aaron Jones ’17, who lives in the area, said in an email that he wasn’t thinking about his safety when he made the decision to live off-campus. Even though Jones said he has had no problems, he acknowledges that the area is “rougher” than other parts of campus. “Everyone here is pretty confident they can handle this type of area,” he wrote.
Ward 1 Alder Sarah Eidelson ’12 concurred. Eidelson entered her junior year at Yale wanting to live off-campus. When she suggested to her friends that they consider University Place, a block farther than Howe and Dwight Streets, they expressed hesitation.
“University Place isn’t much different from Howe Street and Dwight Street, but the one block appeared to make a difference,” she said.
Students living in these “more dangerous” places urged their peers to visit them, not just to socialize, but also as a means to learn more about the city. “I wonder if the people who took the survey have even been to the neighborhoods they called the most dangerous,” Bildner said.
Perceptions, Eidelson said, cannot be simply solved with crime prevention programs and changing rates of crime. Instead, students need to be out in the city themselves, because it’s not just students that feel unsafe off campus — there are people in New Haven who feel just as uncomfortable stepping on to the heart of Yale’s campus. Fish Stark ’17, Eidelson’s competitor in the Ward 1 Democratic primary later this month, said he is sure that some of the New Haven population already feels unsafe coming onto campus. The feeling of welcome diminished even further after an incident last January. Tahj Blow ‘16 became the center of attention in the winter, when he was mistaken for an intruder in Trumbull College. The officer, who remained unnamed in public documents, held his gun in the “low-ready” position towards Blow as he was leaving the library one night. After Blow’s father wrote an opinion column in the New York Times, the incident became part of a national dialogue about police interactions with young black men, a major demographic group in New Haven.
Safety goes both ways, Stark said, and it’s a part of the campus conversation that he thinks is ignored. After the incident involving Blow, he said he would not be surprised if certain racial groups within New Haven were more wary of stepping onto campus.
The solution might involve a more nuanced understanding of safety within a broader context.
“The only mandatory event during Camp Yale which talks about New Haven is the safety orientation,” Stark said. “We need someone to tell freshmen the real story of New Haven, and all it has to offer.”