In July 2015, a white police officer pulled over Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black man, for lacking a front license plate. When he failed to produce a valid driver’s license, the officer proceeded to shoot and kill him with a gunshot wound to the head after DuBose put the car in drive. The officer was employed by the University of Cincinnati.
The shooting of Stephanie Washington by Terrance Pollock of the Yale Police Department and Devin Eaton of the Hamden Police Department bears grave similarities to the death of DuBose. It’s a story of law enforcement, structurally supported by an institution of higher education, overstepping its jurisdiction and causing irreversible damage to communities of color that they see as disposable compared to our “esteemed” institutions. In light of these tragedies, we must ask ourselves: Do we need campus police at all?
According to a 2011-2012 survey from the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, the majority of colleges with more than 2,500 students now have a police department associated with the college, separate from the existing city police. Eighty-one percent of these colleges have patrol jurisdictions that extend beyond campus boundaries.
This has not always been the case, however. Well into the 1950s, most colleges did not have their own police departments, opting instead for community monitoring and relying on local law enforcement. The exception was Yale. In 1894, the first police officers ever stationed at a college arrived at Yale and have remained here ever since. It should not be ignored that Yale began this legacy — therefore, it holds a certain entitlement on this particular enforcement of law and order. Other colleges followed suit in the 1960s by welcoming police to their campuses as a means to quell student protests and enforce order. In essence, to police us.
The YPD, in its current form, is now quasi-private law enforcement, branded with Yale’s name and endorsement, with policing powers comparable to those of local departments. This should make us uncomfortable for a number of reasons. The presence of police, especially armed police, is not a welcome sight for everyone. For some people of color, it can have the inverse effect of creating discomfort and fear rather than inspiring orderly reassurance that may be common for others. Beyond Yale, campus police carry the dual threat of being both a member of law enforcement and a representative of academic privilege. For local residents traveling on or near Yale’s campus, the presence of the YPD is a clear signal that this place does not welcome them and will enforce this exclusion through violent force. We must consider how this is truly bizarre. Somehow, Yale University, a private institution, has established its own arm of law enforcement which has jurisdiction to police and monitor almost whoever it chooses. Would we feel comfortable if Microsoft Corp. had such control over its own law enforcement? Or if private residential communities could fund their own police departments and brand them as such?
To no one’s surprise, the presence of these officers has not been without consequence. Samuel DuBose’s death should be reason enough to question the validity of campus police, but sadly, other tragedies provide further evidence against them. In September 2018, two white Portland State University officers, James Dewey and Shawn McKenzie, shot and killed Jason Washington, a black man attempting to break up a bar fight. The officers were released without criminal charges even after the state medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. Other incidents at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and San Jose University demonstrate the shocking capacity of lethal force that these campus police wield.
On Yale’s campus, the shooting of Stephanie Washington is not without precedent in the behavior of the YPD. We all remember the story of Lolade Siyonbola GRD ’19, a black graduate student whose simple act of napping outside of her dorm in a common room criminalized her in the eyes of the Yale police. Other incidents, too small to catch media attention but perhaps even more pervasive and dangerous, call on us to confront the conduct of Yale police and perhaps even question their space on this campus in the same manner that they question ours.
So, let’s ask. Why is it that Yale, as an academic institution, feels entitled to its own law enforcement and therefore a monopoly on the law — enforced by violence — within its walls? What message does this send to our neighbors, especially people of color, who walk the streets of their own neighborhoods knowing that they will never be included under the umbrella of protection that Yale has carved out through its own police? Is it okay that this noninclusion could mean legal and physical precarity and even death? Why are these campus police allowed to have a presence outside the borders of our campus at all, especially after repeated instances of injustice? Do we need them?
No, and neither does New Haven.
Baji Tumendemberel is a first year in Grace Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .