The shooting of Stephanie Washington, a young black New Haven resident, by an officer of the Hamden Police Department and Yale University Police should produce grave concern and protest within the Yale student community.

Facts are still emerging, narratives are still changing, but one incontestable truth persists: Hamden and Yale University police shot an innocent, unarmed black woman.

How do we know she was innocent? The driver, Paul Witherspoon III, was released without charges, without even so much as a fingerprinting. His mother, Keisha Greene, confirmed as much during a community meeting with Hamden mayor Curt Leng and acting Police Chief John Cappiello, among other officials.

Moreover, a video taken by a neighbor contradicts the official narrative that claims the driver “exited the vehicle in an abrupt manner.” As Witherspoon’s red car is slowing down, one officer is seen exiting his car, drawing his gun, moving to the passenger side and quickly emptying his magazine into the passenger-side window. Perhaps most suggestively, the officer continues to shoot even as he runs away.

As we analyze this video, we cannot discount the fact that the officer, visibly afraid, is entering into a neighborhood that is unfamiliar and shrouded in racist symbolism. Newhallville is simultaneously one of the most heavily policed and one of the poorest communities in New Haven. Newhallville’s legacy in the public eye would not have been lost on the officer, who reacted in ways he would never have in certain, white parts of Hamden.

The whitewashed, diluted and abbreviated account initially provided to the students by the administration betrays our institution’s interest in minimizing and deflecting responsibility for its involvement in the incident.

According to the “public safety advisory” email, the Yale police officer was responding to a request for assistance from the Hamden police. Both the Hamden police officer and the Yale police officer “discharged their weapons,” and “a passenger in the vehicle was struck.” The email — laden with euphemistic language, passive voice, and equivocation—is not an advisory notice, but the first attempt at justification.

News headlines that continue to identify Witherspoon and Washington as suspects and not the victims of police brutality—or even simply Connecticut residents — are equally responsible for misrepresenting the truth. A media that relies exclusively on official narratives are servants of official narratives.

I write this article as a Yale student but, more importantly, as a relatively new, but intentional member of the Newhallville community, where the shooting occurred.

In eight brief months, I have witnessed and felt the darkening effect of Yale’s long shadow on these particular underfunded and underserved communities. The racial and economic divisions between Newhallville and Yale are palpable and visceral.

As recently as February, more than one hundred people rallied at City Hall to protest the University’s failure to fulfill the basic promise of stable employment opportunities. In 2015, the University promised to increase the employment of New Haven residents from designated low-income neighborhoods, including Newhallville, by 500 in four years — a number they missed by more than 200. 

With this shooting, that fault line of distrust has widened into a canyon. This breach must be openly acknowledged and repaired.

Yale University Police are, by law, “agents and employees of Yale University.” Their oath of office commits them to use the power entrusted to them “for the best interest of the University.” Not for New Haven, not for the common good, not even for the people of Yale, but for the University.

They are tasked with policing the border between “Yale” and the New Haven community. Since  it is an artificial border, Yale Police frequently crosses into neighborhoods they have not sworn to protect, at least as is indicated by YPD’s General Order 104 (“Oath of Office”).

Because of its financial resources and political clout, the University is uniquely positioned to not only take responsibility for its role in this incident, but to also include the interests of the broader community in the name of reform.

The University has the opportunity to take the steps toward racial reconciliation in front of a local and national audience. Yale can move from silence and complicity to solidarity with our hurting neighbors. One way is to commit to pressure local law enforcement to ensure a transparent investigation and a just outcome.

Other steps toward solidarity can include: 1) the issue of a public apology, 2) a commitment to terminate the employment of any responsible party, 3) a review and revision of YDP’s relationship to the broader New Haven community, and 4) a renewed, material commitment to these communities of need.

But, until the University proves itself to be a reliable partner for justice, this movement must begin with the students.

As Yale students, we must ask ourselves, “Is my safety ensured at the expense of someone else’s?” In light of this shooting, the answer should be an unequivocal yes.

Within the University’s protective bubble, we can easily ignore the uncomfortable truths that implicate our institution in injustice. We must correct our vision to include the many overlooked and under-considered people who challenge our presumption of moral superiority.

How can we be national advocates for justice if we allow the injustices in our backyard to pass unnoticed? How can we study centuries of racial oppression in our classrooms, yet not speak up when we witness it first-hand? Stephanie Washington might not have died from the bullet, but this fact in no way lightens the burden of responsibility. We must continue to #SayHerName, along with other black and brown people who have been brutalized by the police.

Students should monitor social media, in particular the Black Lives Matter New Haven Facebook page, for updates on future protests. 

Joshua Cayetano is a first year at the Yale Divinity School. Contact him at joshua.cayetano@yale.edu .

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mentioned that a protest would be held in front of President Salovey’s house every day at 5:30 p.m. unless otherwise stated. That has since been amended to recommend that students get further information on protests through the Black Lives Matter New Haven Facebook page. 

  • John Sand

    Given these facts, it would not be unreasonable for the state of CT to revoke YPD’s licence to kill (which is basically what you get, in the States, when you become a police officer).

    • heavensdoor

      you’re ridiculous..it’s the police in this country are being targeted for outright
      assassination ..never heard of a police officer who got up and said, “well
      i think I’ll go kill some innocent person. The opposite is what is happening and
      we can thank the last president for that. He couldn’t resolve the murder rate in the major cities or had no interest in doing that so he decided to have a scapegoats..the easy ones..if you think this is an easy job..go join a force.
      You would be gone in a NY second. I have no facts here..and have never heard what the 911 call from the victim said…or what transpired.. but I am
      going to wait for the facts….to most people of reason ..it’s the facts that need
      to be seen ..not Yale Students or George Soro’s professional gangs.

      • John Sand

        I’m not going to join a force, because I don’t get off on seeing people get shot. I’d ask you to name an incident where a cop was “assassinated”, but you’re obviously too busy ranting about “Soros” (an unsubtle dog whistle for”cabal of Jews”)-funded mobs.

      • Ralphiec88

        Both of you are two sides of the same evil coin. Being a cop is an inherently dangerous job, but not a license to kill. What Obama said (as opposed to what some of “heaven’s” favorite media outlets spun), was that people of color are indeed treated differently in many cases. These are both facts. No one has to choose between supporting the police, and supporting the rights of people of color and extremists shouldn’t be setting up that false choice.

    • Arnold Zweeres

      Yes, what could go wrong?

  • CarlHarmonica

    “Facts are still emerging,” and therefore, we shouldn’t jump to any conclusion. I also would like to add that the statement, “News headlines that continue to identify Witherspoon and Washington as
    suspects and not the victims of police brutality are equally responsible for misrepresenting the
    truth” is in direct opposition of the earlier statement.

    We should absolutely protest acts of undue violence, but we should wait until we have the entire information.

    • Sherry Robinson

      Are you serious? A key fact in this situation that cannot be disputed and has been reported is that both people in the car were UNARMED. Period. End of story. The video shows the cop getting out of the car and immediately shooting.

  • IAMFozzy

    Not sure about the “racist” bit as it was a black cop who shot this woman but meh, narrative!

    • Deeper Thoughts

      Thing about America’s institutionalized racism, is that it impacts everyone. The US has always rewarded and protected those Blacks who separate themselves from their race. Whether it was helping to catch those fleeing slavery, sitting silently on the Supreme Court bench, or being a young Black conservative pundit…each is rewarded by the system…until they falter (ask OJ). The NWA song “F the Police” has a line about ‘Black cops showing off for White cops’ by being unnecessarily aggressive with other Blacks. Institutionalized racism has not only promoted white superiority, but its resulted in some POC believing that shit too.

      • Arnold Zweeres

        sure

      • Ralphiec88

        There’s little evidence of black slave catchers in the US, and though it could have happened, the impact would be infinitesimal in the country of the time. If you’re still defending OJ, there’s not a lot of hope for objectivity, but I will point out that something said in a rap song doesn’t make it gospel. This case clearly has elements of fear and mistaken identity, it’s a stretch to assume that a racist act by a black cop is a major factor.

    • heavensdoor

      In faireness this author assumes a whole lot of things that are not
      even proven..like the black police officer was afraid of the neighborhood.
      Why? As the original call came in as an armed robbery..he was cautious because he was not sure where the person was. It’s called common sense.
      Oh no..we can’t have that. ..but one thing is normally true..the adrenaline is pumping.

  • Michael

    Good shoot, good job officers!

  • boboadobo

    this op/ed is pure babble.(to put in nicely)

  • BornPoor

    Their actions seem unprovoked. If the broadcast info had been accurate, which it wasn’t, why put yourself in a position where you are exiting your vehicle, 10′ from the driver’s side door? Time and space. That is what both sought once they started hearing each other’s gunshots.Their response reeks of people suffering from PTSD. It’s irrationally, tactically, and the actions they both took. But are they officers who have had dozens of exchanges with armed suspects firing at them? Their tactics don’t manifest that type of real life experience. One trigger would have been the driver starting to exit the car. For most people, they do not realize that a driver or passenger opening their door, trying to exit the auto, is a trigger for any cop making a stop that things are about to go off. People get out and run. People get out and approach the officer, with officers trained that this behavior signals loss of control of the stop, and possible danger for them. But it appeared on film the driver had his hands up. Were there tinted windows? Two large issues that have to examined was how the information broadcast as fact, changed from the caller, to the separate dispatchers. The broadcasts heightened the danger, without any real facts being verified by an officer talking with the caller , or delivery man. The other is “who are these officers?” What do their histories on the job look like? Is there a track record manifesting the use of excessive force in event where use of any force would have been appropriate? If such evidence exists, the blame then falls squarely on the organization that allowed such officer to continue to be among the public with the power of arrest, and a loaded handgun, that essentially belongs to the taxpayers, or in this case, Yale University. Questions are easy. Getting answers here may be more difficult, as partial answers will be given throughout for the sake of preserving facts from attorneys who will sue. You can’t give info to attorneys, who are going to win a case for millions of dollars. Yes , Hamden taxpayers will be on the hook for millions here, because they had an officer on the street, who obviously was a walking time bomb. And how many are left? How many officers have been tested for PTSD? How many carry guns, and are not qualified, but their scores handed to POST, from subordinate training academies were altered to pass folks those departments wanted in their uniforms, for reasons from politics, to public appearance.

  • Anon

    Yale and New Haven are just too dangerous.

  • Will Wilkin

    Depending on the limited information that trickles out, it’s hard for an outside observer to judge the shooting with confidence. The video I saw makes the police officer appear aggressive or scared by running and shooting into the car from behind. But I also read he’d just heard a police radio call that an attempted armed robbery had occurred by someone fleeing in that car. The writer of the article above says police don’t shoot in richer neighborhoods but my guess is neither do most of the murders and other armed assaults occur in those richer neighborhoods. Criticizing and theorizing as a student journalist allows a safer distance from such problems than being a LOE who daily fights crime in violent neighborhoods and likely has some justified anxiety for his own personal safety every day in that job.