Sitting in the front seats of their car earlier this month, Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon could be seen in a cellphone video singing love songs to one another, laughing, smiling, and apparently savoring each other’s presence. Soon after, both of these young, black New Haven, Connecticut, residents would be under gunfire, and Washington would be shot in the face, sustaining injuries. Neither posed a threat, but that didn’t matter to the Yale and Hamden police who shot at them.
On April 16, Yale police officer Terrance Pollock and Hamden police officer Devin Eaton opened fire on Washington and Witherspoon. While the bullets missed Witherspoon, some of the more than 15 shots hit Washington, who now appears to be in stable condition.
The involvement of university police in this tragic event implicates the entire Yale community. As a Yale Law School student, I, along with the thousands of students who walk the streets of New Haven and enjoy the privileges that come with our institutional affiliation, am culpable for this act of police violence. As a Yale Law School student, my tuition helped fund this life-threatening incident. And as a black Yale Law School student, I know how easily that same violence could have been directed toward me.
Since the shooting shined a light on New Haven’s convoluted system of policing, students and activists have taken their demands for justice to the streets, following the lead of local organizers like Kerry Ellington from New Haven for Black Lives. The presence of multiple police forces—Yale Police (YPD), Hamden Police, and New Haven Police—has resulted in a complex and fear-inducing degree of surveillance. This concern is not unfounded. In recent years, there have been other prominent incidents of overpolicing in New Haven. Last year, a black student was accosted by several police officers after falling asleep in a common room of a dorm; four years ago, a Yale police officer pulled a gun on the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow. Other black Yale students have expressed concern over what has been described as a climate of racial profiling. The anxiety and concern this atmosphere creates warrants interrogation, particularly as a rapidly increasing number of universities follow in Yale’s footsteps and begin the controversial process of expanding the authority of campus police. Ultimately, Yale’s resources must be better spent. Rather than financing a subsidiary community police force, Yale should limit the authority of YPD and invest directly in New Haven by paying the taxes the city’s residents have been demanding for years.
University police forces like Yale’s maintain contracts with host cities whereby the scope of their authority is defined. Often, as in Yale’s case, these university-funded officers function as a sworn police force, with many of the same responsibilities as the city’s.
These agreements are frequently framed as a necessary form of institutional support from the university to the city: Campus police forces like YPD are known for being better trained, paid, and resourced than police departments in the surrounding area.
The true benefits, however, are being called into question. Yale and similar universities undoubtedly have an obligation to invest in the surrounding area. Yet tragedies like Washington and Witherspoon’s near-death experience demonstrate that this is not the way to do it.
Yale’s current approach to policing has created a confusing and complicated accountability structure. This policing regime has been described by activists as a triple occupation, a perception rooted in fears of overpolicing. The significance of this perception alone cannot be overstated. In fact, professors here at Yale have shown that the distrust this creates between community members and the police weakens police legitimacy in a way that hinders the efficacy of policing itself.
Yale is not alone, of course. Throughout the country, universities are bolstering the authority of campus police, ultimately complicating accountability mechanisms. As recent examples like Johns Hopkins’ restructuring of its campus police show, these expansions of power are often initiated in the face of intense opposition from community members.
What’s a more effective way for universities like Yale to contribute to their surrounding areas? Paying their fair share in taxes.
Cities like New Haven and Baltimore are resource-deprived. With a poverty rate of more than 25 percent, New Haven lacks the funds to effectively invest in a strong police force and violence-prevention programs that tackle crime. The implications of this lack of resources are severe. As sociologists like Robert Vargas have shown, this broad underfunding of government services has been known to intensify the very crime rates campus police are asked to address.
This does not have to be the case. Despite their wealth, universities like Yale use almost every loophole possible to avoid taxes. Although Yale owns more than $100 million in real estate assets—making it the city’s fourth-largest property owner—it is a tax-exempt entity. From 2010 through 2015, Yale avoided paying corporate income taxes on earnings from its $25 billion endowment, resulting in savings of $2.1 billion. During this same period, Yale saved $708 million in municipal property taxes, something many corporate entities would have paid. And again, Yale is not alone. Far too many universities, including Johns Hopkins, have leaped at opportunities to limit their contributions to the surrounding community by failing to pay a fair share in taxes.
If universities truly care about the safety of their communities, they will invest directly in a way that would make institutions like YPD obsolete. Only then can universities like Yale begin to improve, rather than make worse, the lives of those in their city’s communities. Only then will these universities give their cities the autonomy they deserve when it comes to policing and begin to address the all-too-common violence inflicted on people like Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon.
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