Karen Lin

Black Students for Disarmament at Yale, a group of undergraduate organizers, has sent an open letter to Yale administrators demanding they disarm and dismantle the Yale Police Department.

The open letter, addressed to University President Peter Salovey, YPD Chief Ronnell Higgins and other senior administrators, first went live on the BSDY website on Sept. 23. It includes four demands centered around defunding and dismantling the YPD. The letter comes on the heels of the organization’s June petition that calls for the same action. Since its release, the petition has amassed more than 8,000 signatures.

“We just want to make sure that people know that the issue of the YPD hasn’t gone away even though there hasn’t been a high-profile shooting since last year,” said Jaelen King ’22, Co-President of BSDY. “We wanted to release the open letter to show that we’re still working and still trying to make this change happen.”

On Thursday afternoon, University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews ’83 LAW ’86, one of the letter’s recipients, emailed the organization to set up a meeting between herself, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun and BSDY leaders. In the email, which the News reviewed, Goff-Crews wrote, “Your engagement is deeply valued as we continue to reassess and reshape major aspects of policing at Yale.”

In an email to the News, Salovey affirmed that the University is working towards reshaping the YPD but will not abolish the force.

BSDY began drafting the letter a few weeks ago, King said, but waited to release it until the organization could draw up the image of a future without the YPD.

Along with the letter, BSDY leaders outlined a path to dismantle the YPD and reinvest its funding into New Haven organizations. The pathway includes four main steps: immediately disarm the YPD, implement a differential response system by the close of the academic year, defund and dismantle the YPD by 2023 and reinvest the YPD’s budget to “serve and uplift Black and Brown communities.”

New Haven Board of Alders Ward 1 Alder Eli Sabin ’22 wrote to the News in support of Yale creating a differential response system such as the one proposed by City Hall “so armed officers don’t respond when they’re not needed and when their presence could escalate a situation rather than help resolve it safely.”

But the path is still a work in progress, King explained, and the organization will continue to revise it with input from the New Haven community and University administrators.

Like federal and state police departments, the University’s officers are always armed. But BSDY argues that arming officers is, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, dangerous. The organization cites the YPD’s call logs — which note that one-third of the force’s calls are for welfare checks, and many of the remaining calls are for medical emergencies, motor vehicle stops or noise complaints — as evidence that the officers do not need weapons.

For calls unrelated to crime, BSDY outlines how a Differential Response System could take officers’ places. Trained professionals, instead of the police, could respond to medical or mental health emergencies, and other University organizations could respond to allegations of sexual misconduct, BSDY explained.

“A police officer shouldn’t be going to do a welfare check,” King said. “The idea behind the Differential Response System is to implement trained professionals that are specifically prepared and have the training, resources and the know-how to address these situations rather than just calling the security or police officer because that’s the only person you know to call.”

BSDY organizers also referenced the strained relationship between the University and its home city. King claimed that the University aggravates the “barrier” between the two by having a private police force specifically charged with protecting Yale’s property. The University could allow the New Haven community to decide how best to utilize the YPD’s budget of $35 million, BSDY argues.

The money could be re-allocated to address education, homelessness, hunger, healthcare or other areas where the community needs additional aid, King said. In turn, this would lessen violence, he argued, as it would address the root causes that move people to commit crimes. He provided the example of someone who has to rob a store to feed themselves and their children.

“Black and Brown people are traditionally more targeted than their white counterparts by police departments and are overcriminalized and I think that makes itself particularly evident in the relationship between Yale and the New Haven community,” King said. “We think there’s a sense of forming a barrier and making sure that people who aren’t ‘wanted’ on campus aren’t brought onto campus.”

Last year, officers from the YPD and the Hamden Police Department opened fire on two Black New Haven residents, Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon. The shooting sparked immediate protests and ultimately led to the formation of BSDY. In August, Washington filed a suit against the officers and institutions involved.

In the wake of the shooting, Yale retained Twenty-First Century Policing (21CP), an external consulting firm, to independently assess the YPD. The group publicly released its 79-page report in March. The report’s recommendations include strengthening community trust and confidence and ensuring responsive police practices and operations.

“We are moving forward with the 88 recommendations made by 21CP,” Salovey wrote in an email to the News. “We already have implemented or are in the process of implementing the majority of the recommendations; the rest are being evaluated and planned for implementation within the next calendar year.”

Salovey provided the example of the University working with mental health experts to determine when calls to YPD would better be addressed by them.

But some students say these suggested reforms fall short. In a Medium article, BSDY claims that 21CP did not address root issues of racism and racialized violence inherent in police departments throughout the country. BSDY said recent reforms, including increased implicit bias training and bodycam usage, have “largely failed” and have led them to think that abolition of the YPD is the best path, rather than 21CP’s suggested approach of reform.

But across campus, opinions on BSDY’s demands are mixed. Aron Ravin ’24 voiced a different perspective. He told the News that while the example of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon was “very powerful” and that “what happened there was obviously wrong,” he believes BSDY has “extrapolated” a lot of its demands.

Ravin agreed with BDSY that the YPD has an inflated number of officers relative to the crime rate in New Haven, but added that he does not think having a system without police is the best solution, nor one that most students would support.

“In the event that [a situation] escalates, how do you expect a social worker to respond to that?” Ravin said. “People need to be prepared for that responsibility.”

Newly-elected YCC President Aliesa Bahri ’22 voiced her support for BSDY’s demands in an email to the News. Bahri wrote that she is “fully committed” to supporting BSDY’s demands, and that she is working with student leaders and New Haven residents to implement alternative approaches to public safety.

Sabin voiced similar sentiments. He told the News that the city of New Haven’s Civilian Review Board and Board of Police Commissioners “must have the authority to investigate, discipline, and terminate any police officer authorized to wear a badge in New Haven,” which includes members of the YPD.

“Yale must recognize that the privatization of safety for its own community — at the expense of making Black and Brown city residents and students feel unsafe or uncomfortable — is a failure of Yale’s responsibilities to the New Haven community,” Sabin said.

Founded in 1894, the YPD is the oldest college police force in the country.

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu 

Larissa Jimenez | larissa.jimenez@yale.edu 

Rose Horowitch covers Woodbridge Hall. She previously covered sustainability and the University's COVID-19 response. She is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in history.