Eric Wang, Senior Photographer
University administrators and leaders of Black Students for Disarmament at Yale, a group advocating for the abolition of the Yale Police Department, met late Friday afternoon to consider the future of public safety at Yale.
The meeting comes nearly two months after Yale originally extended the invitation. Administrators offered to meet with student organizers after BSDY published an open letter outlining their demands and a report titled “A Pathway to Abolition,” which outlines a framework for implementing those demands.
In an email to the News, the administrators wrote that they specifically discussed the report BSDY had prepared and shared ideas on it, particularly about a differential response system and support for the New Haven community. The students encouraged the committee to solicit input from faculty and experts on public safety, and the committee plans to do so, the students added.
“We’re just taught growing up that the police is just a natural part of our existence,” King said. “It’s hard to imagine a public safety department without police or without some kind of police officer presence there and I think that’s just a large hurdle for people to jump over. … I think sometimes people don’t necessarily really sit and soak in the realization that the Yale campus owns and operates its own private police force.”
The meeting, originally scheduled for Oct. 9, was delayed due to disagreement over whether it could be recorded and whether community organizers, such as Ala Ochumare of Black Lives Matter New Haven and Rhonda Caldwell of Hamden Action Now, could attend. Ultimately, community organizers were invited but had scheduling conflicts.
BSDY leaders Jaelen King ’22, Teigist Taye ’22, Zoë Hopson ’22, Callie Benson-Williams ’23 and Nia Berrian ’19 attended Friday’s meeting.
From Yale’s side, Secretary and Vice President for University Life Kimberly Goff-Crews ’83 LAW ’86, Associate Vice President for New Haven Affairs and University Properties Lauren Zucker and Project Manager of Yale Public Safety Holly Hermes attended Friday’s meeting. Yale College Dean Marvin Chun, who previously offered to meet with BSDY organizers, was not present. Neither was YPD Chief Ronnell Higgins, with whom organizers have met in the past.
Two of the administrators are members of a committee that University President Peter Salovey created last month as part of the Belonging at Yale initiatives and tasked with reforming Yale’s police department. The committee will help him implement reforms to the YPD outlined in a June report by 21st Century Policing, an independent organization that assesses police forces. Two other committee members did not attend the meeting: Senior Vice President for Operations Jack Callahan and School of Management Dean Kerwin Charles.
At the start of the hour-long meeting, King said the administrators’ tone seemed “hesitant” about the group’s ideas. By the end, he said, they seemed more receptive to the idea of abolishing the YPD. The group went over the pathway to abolition of the YPD that they had created, and the administrators asked them questions about it, King said.
“I think the thing that we wanted to communicate the most is that there is a future that is realistic and feasible where the Yale Police Department isn’t a necessary part of Yale public safety,” King said. “There are actual legitimate options present and available where Yale can defund or abolish its police department and campus is still safe and students actually live in close relationships between Yale and New Haven.”
But Salovey has previously told the News that while Yale is open to reimagining “virtually everything” about how YPD does its work, abolition is not on the table. At the meeting, administrators said that the YPD is necessary to respond to crime, bringing up the example of recent paintball attacks on Yale students in New Haven.
King said that Yale has the opportunity to lead other universities and implement an innovative public safety system.
Hopson, the BSDY Outreach Director, agreed with King. She said that the committee was particularly interested in differential response systems of the organization’s demands for police abolition. Hopson said that BSDY and local New Haven community organizers were looking at ways to “act proactively” and give back to communities to lower the crime rate. She referenced groups like social workers, who she said were “equipped, trained and skilled to respond to crises” as one alternative to police officers.
In an interview with the News, BSDY Finance Director Benson-Williams also referenced alternatives to police officers that are already in place at Yale, such as mental health resources, that “deserve more funding.” She said by providing more resources like more counselors and a diversity of counselors that cater to different identity groups, Mental Health & Counseling at Yale Health could serve as an effective differential response system.
Benson-Williams also mentioned services such as peer counseling and first-year counselors, or FroCos, that respond to noise complaints and student disputes as a means to reimagine public safety. Still, both Benson-Williams and Hopson said that Yale should also look to New Haven community organizations that are already doing the work to develop policing alternatives.
Since 21st Century Policing finished its report, Yale has started a pilot program to respond to non-criminal calls for service that would be better addressed by trained mental health, student life and counseling professionals. Additionally, Yale is conducting scenario-based training in de-escalation techniques and reduction of the use of force and reporting annually all instances when Yale police officers use force, University Spokesperson Karen Peart wrote in an email to the News.
Hopson said that BSDY met with New Haven organizers prior to the Friday meeting because those organizers were unable to attend. She said that it was important for them to have a voice and be at the forefront of the conversation “because the police [YPD] are policing our New Haven community.”
Through conversations with New Haven residents, BSDY has learned that people feel almost constantly watched, King said, as the YPD and New Haven and Hamden Police Departments all interact with residents.
“People just feel over-policed, point-blank, period,” King said. “[The YPD] is definitely seen as this way to keep New Haven out of Yale.”
In a prior email to the News, Peart wrote that the University values its relationship and partnership with its home city. The University is New Haven’s largest employer, Peart wrote, and spends over $700 million annually directly on New Haven.
The University committee is continuing to collect data from the YPD, and will reach out to student leaders for a follow-up discussion in January. They are currently meeting with outside organizations in New Haven and studying whether a differential response system is feasible. Administrators declined to say which specific organizations they were working with, King said.
In the meantime, BSDY is planning a forum with groups that have traditionally opposed the idea of abolishing police forces. They have reached out to Yale Conservative Group and the Yale Republicans. King said this will help the group avoid creating an “echo chamber” by opening them up to additional viewpoints.
BSDY was established in 2019 in response to the shooting of New Haven residents Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon by Hamden police officer Devin Eaton and Yale police officer Terrance Pollock.
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