Last Tuesday, Paul Witherspoon and Stephanie Washington were driving through Newhallville when they were pulled over as suspects in a robbery. Within seconds, police officers—from the Hamden and Yale police departments—opened fire, spraying 16 bullets into their car. Stephanie Washington was hit once.
Body cam footage was released this Tuesday which contradicted the initial police story that Witherspoon “exited the car abruptly.” The video did, however, show Witherspoon exiting the car calmly, with his hands up. It also showed a police officer rushing out of his squad car and opening fire almost immediately, before running away down the street, continuing to fire recklessly. No weapons were found in the car. Witherspoon was arrested, but released hours later without being charged.
Community organizers and activists responded to this injustice with incredible vigor and passion. Nightly demonstrations have drawn hundreds of righteously angry citizens and students. Protestors are demanding answers: Why were unarmed, black motorists met with bullets by the police? Why were Hamden Police shooting at suspects in New Haven? What were Yale Police doing in Newhallville?
And in the past week, some New Haven activists and Yale students have been rallying around a relatively new cause: disarming, or in some cases, disbanding, the Yale Police Department.
Their concerns are grounded in simple truths about the Yale Police—truths which should make us all uneasy.
Let’s start with one simple truth: The citizens of New Haven cannot hold the Yale Police—a private force—accountable. They answer to Yale, who pays their salaries, not New Haven residents, who do not. Their mission is to serve the best interests of the University, not the city’s residents. They are not subject to Freedom of Information requests or other checks on their power which municipal police are subject to.
The Yale Police remain accountable to Yale and Yale only.
Why then are they permitted to roam the streets, armed to the teeth, spraying bullets at unarmed black men and women? Why are they operating in Newhallville, outside of their jurisdiction? Why are they armed at all? How can we possibly bring them to justice?
This lack of accountability is especially inexcusable against the backdrop of Yale’s relationship with the people of New Haven. The relationship is full of constant, barely concealed tension. It comes to the fore in high-profile incidents, like when protestors descended on Yale last year as the university failed to fulfill its promise to employ more residents from New Haven’s low-income neighborhoods. But it is always there, bubbling beneath the surface.
If you’ve ever been on a tour of Yale, one of the first questions asked is always: “Is New Haven safe for my child?” On the surface, it’s a reasonable question. But dig a little deeper, and it betrays a nasty, racist, classist tension. To many, the Yale Police Department is the physical manifestation of this tension. They are, to put it simply, the force which protects the ivory towers from the undesirables. They defend the extraordinary wealth of Yale from the poverty which surrounds it on all sides.
To be clear, I am not one of the residents who feels put-upon by Yale. I am a wealthy white man from East Rock, New Haven’s Yale-dominated, upscale neighborhood. But even I can feel the distrust and tension in the air. Even I can see the territory which Yale has marked for itself, the territory it protects with its private police force.
Disbanding the Yale Police Department might be foolhardy. They save the cash-strapped city a substantial amount of money by performing duties the city police department would otherwise have to. But disarming them, establishing clear boundaries for their operations and creating mechanisms to hold them accountable to New Haven residents and not just the university—that is just and sensible.
If you would like to participate in actions to seek justice for Paul, Stephanie and Jose Vega Cruz, who was shot and killed on Saturday in Wethersfield, there will be a community conversation on police brutality in New Haven tomorrow night.
Harry Zehner is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.