Early Tuesday at around 4:15 a.m., a Yale police officer and a Hamden police officer shot multiple rounds at a vehicle containing two unarmed passengers, Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon III. Washington was struck and immediately taken to Yale New Haven Hospital for surgery. While New Haven Mayor Toni Harp and Hamden Mayor Curt Leng have publicly expressed their shock regarding the incident and stood behind community leaders, Yale’s leadership has kept a haunting distance.
Two days after the shooting, Yale University President Peter Salovey sent an email to students and employees of Yale, stating that Yale would “engage with our fellow members of the greater New Haven community” in response to the shooting. None of that has been evident in the past week — not in Salovey’s lack of a public statement to the greater New Haven community, not in his lack of attendance at the New Haven City Hall conference convened by Harp on Wednesday and not in the Yale administration’s cowardly response to the events of early Tuesday morning. At this point, we are unsure if Salovey understands what engagement means. This is not a new criticism of Salovey: Students have long known that he rarely makes himself accessible around campus or New Haven. At the New Haven City Hall conference, at which Harp and Leng were both present, not a single Yale representative showed up. While Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins did not attend due to a family emergency, we believe that Yale’s inability to produce another representative is indicative of a larger attitude toward the shooting at hand.
Regardless of the facts that emerge in the state investigation, the Yale administration’s response has been unacceptable. As president of the University, Salovey has a responsibility not only to those of us who attend Yale, but to the larger New Haven community. While Yale often touts that it is New Haven’s largest taxpayer and employer, it conveniently ignores the fact that it is a major reason behind the city’s fiscal difficulties and has done little to remedy those woes. As a nonprofit, Yale is exempt from property taxes on the majority of its properties, even as it physically occupies 54 percent of New Haven’s land. City leaders have stated that it is nearly impossible to run the city without these taxes; Yale’s pithy voluntary payment of $8.7 million in fiscal year 2018 is akin to its turning a blind eye to the 11 percent tax hike on residents last year, as well as the persistent underfunding of public schools, the fire department, the New Haven Police Department and the city government. Yale’s geographic expansion in recent years has also raised property rates, causing gentrification and pushing out city residents who have called this place home for decades before many of us even dreamed of stepping foot on campus. We believe that Salovey’s response reveals Yale at its worst — a Yale that is only invested in itself, a Yale that is generous only when there are benefits to be reaped. As the managing board of the News, we want to be clear that we are not and should not be the leading voice in these community discussions. We stand in solidarity with the work of organizations that have led discussions and protests in recent days, organizations that have been and will be present in this city for far longer than almost all of our editors: Black Lives Matter New Haven, Connecticut Bail Fund, Hamden Action Now, Justice for Jayson, Party for Socialism and Liberation CT, People Against Police Brutality, Unidad Latina en Acción, Yale Black Men’s Union and Yale Black Women’s Coalition, among others. As Yale students, it is our responsibility to lend our voices and bodies to these protests during our four years here, if only because of our privilege in this space. Yale’s memory is shortlived — but New Haven remembers.
Our role is to elevate community voices in this discussion. As such, we stand by community demands for the conclusions of the investigation to be made public, release of body camera footage from the incident and termination of employment for the officers if wrongdoing is found. Discussions — regarding the disarmament of campus police, the jurisdiction that the officers have and whether Yale Police should exist at all — are legitimate and should be taken seriously by the Yale community. It is crucial that we, and Salovey, do not lose sight of the larger picture. This isn’t the first time that the greater New Haven area has experienced police brutality, and unfortunately, it will not be the last. Communities of color around our country face a criminal justice system that is defined by racial profiling. It is a world where, according to the ACLU, despite the fact that white people have higher rates of drug offenses, black people are incarcerated for those same offenses at a rate 10 times higher than that of white people. It would be irresponsible of us to ignore the fact that 240 years of slavery and 90 years of legalized segregation have led us to today — where the systemic profiling of black people in pedestrian stops, as experienced by Witherspoon and Washington, happen consistently, often with disproportionate consequences.
We are coming off of an admissions season during which New Haven has once again been touted as an integral part of Yale — a place that is “large enough to be interesting” but “small enough to be friendly,” according to our own admissions page. If the administration is intent on boasting about the Yale-New Haven relationship in its tours and brochures, the least we ask is that they do right by the city. The first step is showing up when a Yale police officer shoots a New Haven resident under our name. Or, as Salovey would call it, “engaging with our fellow members of the greater New Haven community.”