Editors’ note: This article has been updated from the print version to reflect a response from GPSCY, the social center that operates the graduate student bar mentioned below.
Editors’ note: A previous version of this article stated that Michael Sierra-Arévalo, the Assistant Professor at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, conducted an ethnography of the New Haven Police Department. That is incorrect; Sierra-Arévalo has worked with the NHPD, but has not conducted an ethnography of the Department.
Around two o’clock in the morning, on May 8, Lolade Siyonbola woke up from a nap. Siyonbola, a Black graduate student who lived in Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies, had fallen asleep on a couch in a common room while working on a paper. When Siyonbola woke up, Sarah Braasch, a white graduate student who also lived in the building, confronted her. Braasch hadn’t recognized Siyonbola, and called the police on her while she was sleeping. As captured by Siyonbola’s video recording of their conversation, Braach intoned, as if disciplining a child, “I have every right to call the police,” nodding her head as she spoke. “You cannot sleep in that room,” she explained. On her phone, she snapped pictures of Siyonbola.
“Continue,” Siyonbola told her quietly. “Continue. Get my good side.” It took the Yale Police Department only five minutes to reach the building.
Following YPD protocol, the two officers who arrived initially asked Siyonbola to provide her student ID. After she demonstrated that she could open the door to her apartment with her keys, the officers continued to press her for her ID. She relented, handing them her wallet. Upstairs, a third officer also checked Braasch’s identification. But with Siyonbola, a problem arose that took fifteen minutes to sort out; the name on her ID was a nickname, Lolade, which didn’t match her legal name in the Yale Police’s database, Ololade. “I deserve to be here,” Siyonbola told the officers as she waited for them to allow her to go. “I paid tuition like everybody else. I am not going to justify my existence here.”
Over the course of a few days, Siyonbola’s video recording of the incident garnered over 1.5 million views on Facebook Live. National news outlets from CNN to The New York Times reported on the story. Jean-Louis Reneson, another Black graduate student, posted on Facebook that Braasch had called the police on him three months before, when he was lost in HGS and had tried to ask her for directions. Four police officers arrived in response to that call, and left upon realizing that Reneson was a student. Reneson declined to comment for this article, and Siyonbola did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
After Siyonbola posted the video online, a petition calling for Braasch’s removal from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences gathered 3,000 signatures; Braasch remains a student at Yale. President Peter Salovey, Yale College Dean Marvin Chun, and Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews sent out University-wide emails in which a series of meetings and “listening sessions” with students were promised and commitments to diversity and inclusion were renewed. The event became so infamous that students still refer to it as “what happened at HGS.”
The HGS encounter is one of several accounts of biased policing brought forth by students and New Haven community members in recent years. This piece reports two new sets of allegations—one at GPSCY, Yale’s grad student bar; the other at an off-campus venue—not previously covered in the media. These events raise questions about the role of the police on Yale’s campus. When does policing at Yale draw a boundary between those who are presumed to belong on campus and those who aren’t? How far should the YPD go to enforce borders between Yale and the surrounding city? When is a 911 call a plea for safety, and when is it a method of exclusion?
In the middle of the night on January 11, 1824, someone—likely a Yale student—seized the body of Batsheba Smith, the deceased daughter of a farmer, from her West Haven grave. The thief stowed the body on the floor of the Yale Medical College cellar, folding her corpse so it would look like a pile of clothes. When the New Haven constable discovered the body and news got around, six hundred outraged citizens gathered in front of the Medical College building, armed with weapons and stones. “Tear down the College,” they chanted, until city guards stepped in and arrested some of the rioters.
As Yale’s website tells the story, this riot was the reason the city assigned two New Haven Police officers, Bill Wiser and Jim Donnelly, to regularly patrol the campus. The University later hired Wiser and Donnelly, making them the inaugural officers of the first private university police force in the nation.
It’s unclear whether the riot was actually the catalyst for the formation of the YPD, as Wiser and Donnelly weren’t assigned to police Yale until 1894—a good seventy years after the body-snatching incident. Yet the riot perhaps exemplified the rocky relationship between the school and the city that led to the Department’s founding. In his autobiography, Wiser wrote that he and Donnelly were appointed to police Yale because “many stories were told of the troubles and fights between the students on the one side and the city police and citizens on the other.” Wiser and Donnelly’s primary role was to defend Yale students from their neighbors, rather than the other way around. “As outlined by the police,” he wrote, “our duties were to protect the students, their property, and all college property from injury.”
According to Wiser, intruders had been wandering onto university land and stealing students’ belongings. Early in his position at the university, Wiser found himself kicking “tramps” out of the basements and forcing a “colored gentleman” to leave one of the building entrances. “The first thing to do, it seemed to us,” he wrote, “was to keep all suspicious characters from the campus.”
Yale students initially regarded Wiser and Donnelly with mistrust, regarding them as outsiders and discplinarians. Yet the officers managed to endear themselves to the community. They taught students to sew on buttons and counseled them through periods of homesickness. In time, they were given lodging in campus dorms. As Wiser tells it, the pair grew so attached to the College that when the city police department sought to reassign them to a different post, Wiser and Donnelly quit and were subsequently appointed by the University as “special constables,” now private employees.
For decades, the Yale Police Department remained relatively small. But in the 1960s and ’70s, student protests erupted across the country as part of the Civil Rights Movement and the flurry of activism against the Vietnam War. In response, more and more universities began to form their own police departments, hiring officers who were trained to interact with college students. By 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 75 percent of over nine hundred four-year colleges surveyed across the country employed an armed police force. 86 percent of campus police officers had the power to arrest in regions beyond the campus borders.
In the ’70s, Yale expanded its force and tightened its training programs and standards for officers. At first, the University attempted to downplay the YPD’s status as a police force; officers utilized unmarked cars and wore suits as uniforms. John W. Powell, a campus security consultant who served as Director of Security and Associate Dean of Students from 1960 to 1968, described the Department’s transition to blue uniforms that more closely resembled city police officers’ attire, mimicking the NHPD so as to project an image of safety and deter crime.
Appearances aside, important distinctions remain between the YPD and its New Haven counterpart. On May 16 of this year, the New Haven Independent wrote that it had filed a request for the YPD’s body-camera footage of the Hall of Graduate Studies incident in May under the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which requires all public agencies to provide access to their records and files when asked. The Department denied their request, citing a need to preserve the privacy of the students involved under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, as well as a legal exception that allows them to withhold materials related to “uncorroborated allegations.” Had Siyonbola not recorded the HGS incident on her phone, no evidence corroborating her experience would have been publicly accessible.
In fact, as the Independent reported, the YPD has a history of denying FOIA requests, bringing forth questions about the transparency the public can expect from a private police force. In 2007, the Department rejected the FOIA request of a lawyer, Janet Perrotti, whose client claimed to have been racially profiled by an officer. At the time, the Yale Police claimed that as a private police force, it was not subject to FOIA at all. The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) sided with Perrotti. If the Department could arrest people and put them in jail, the Commission concluded, it should have to disclose requested materials to the public under FOIA.
But the following year, after the Yale Police union requested that the Department disclose the salaries of top officials, the FOIC ruled that the Department did not resemble a public agency in its financial operations, and thus did not need to disclose that information. Similar legal battles over whether FOIA applies to private university police forces have occurred in recent years at universities across the country, including Harvard and Notre Dame.
Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins calls the YPD “a private entity with a public purpose.” In this respect, the YPD is similar to a private prison, or a charter school. And like these kinds of institutions, it faces the challenge of balancing the interests of its private organization with its obligations to the public.
Today, the Yale Police force has grown to ninety-three officers. It works alongside a Yale Security team, which, according to Yale’s website, “serves as the eyes and ears of the YPD” inside buildings and parking lots. Today, when someone dials 911 from an on-campus location, the phone call routes to the YPD. According to Chief Higgins, the YPD and the NHPD frequently collaborate; their detectives confer on major investigations, their patrol routes overlap, and they route calls to each other. Sometimes, officers from each department will respond to a call together. YPD officers walk, bike, and drive along “beats,” or patrol routes, both within the campus boundaries and in areas adjacent to campus.
Since Yale’s recent expansion into the Dixwell neighborhood with the opening of Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray colleges in 2017, Jeannia Fu, a student at the School of Public Health, has noticed an increased police presence in the area. Fu, who is Asian, has straight, cropped hair and speaks in a level, earnest tone. She has lived in New Haven for nine years and has been involved in activism against police brutality since a Bridgeport police officer fatally shot teenager Jayson Negron in May 2017.
Last spring, Fu and a friend, Amy Smoyer, an Assistant Professor at Southern Connecticut State University, saw three Yale officers talking to a group of Black boys, who she guesses were around 10 years old, along the bike path that runs between Pauli Murray and Yale Health. Fu said that as she walked up to them, the officers were taking down the boys’ names. Fu asked if the boys were all right. “They looked scared and didn’t say anything,” she said. While Smoyer was not close enough to hear the conversation between Fu and the officers, she confirmed the general details of Fu’s account.
Fu recalled that one of the officers asked her to step aside in an “agitated tone.” The officer instructed her not to speak to the kids, claiming that she was “inciting them to push back,” Fu says. She remembers the officer mentioning that this was part of an “investigation.” The boys later explained to Fu that a Yale Security officer had called the police on the kids.
Fu approached a security officer stationed nearby. The officer confirmed that she had been the one to call the police. When Fu inquired why she had called the police, the security officer, who is white, answered, “You know, these kids around these rough spots, you gotta teach them how to behave.” Fu remembered responding that she thought the officer was “racist,” at which point the officer grew angry and threatened to file a harassment complaint against her.
Later on, Fu wrote about the incident on her Facebook page, encouraging those who were concerned to email Higgins directly. In a statement posted on the YPD’s Facebook page, which named Fu directly, Higgins said that the emails he received were “derogatory and, in some cases, inflammatory.” Higgins asserted that there was “absolutely no racism in this situation, certainly not on the part of Yale police.” Higgins explained that the police were called because the kids were trying to enter one of the colleges, yet maintained that the officers spoke “politely and respectfully” to the kids. He noted that one of the officers recognized the kids, and that one of the kids remembered seeing the officer handing out Rice Krispie Treats over the summer. “As a proud resident of New Haven, as a police chief, and as an African-American, I am all too familiar with racism and how quickly hatred can spread—particularly on social media,” Higgins wrote.
From Fu’s perspective, the encounter exemplified a broader pattern of policing New Haven residents. She considers the Yale Police to be a mechanism by which Yale has gentrified New Haven. As Yale expands, it displaces New Haven residents, she says, and the YPD’s presence enforces the newly-drawn campus boundaries. “I think there was a lesson being taught that day about who can belong where,” she says of the encounter by the Benjamin Franklin gate.
Ronnell Higgins, Chief of the YPD, grew up in New Haven. His father was an NHPD officer, and encouraged him to pursue a career with the Yale Police. After serving as a corrections officer at Bridgeport Correctional Facility, Higgins joined the Yale Police in 1997, and became Chief in 2011. He is now in his forties. As Janet Lindner, Yale’s Associate Vice President for Administration at the time, told the Yale Daily News, the Yale Police Chief hiring committee appreciated Higgins’ background as a longtime city resident. Higgins has prioritized a model of “community policing” during his tenure as Chief, seeking to build ties between YPD officers and both the Yale and New Haven communities.
Higgins speaks in a steady, deep voice, and wears rectangular tortoiseshell glasses. His schedule is packed; after four months of attempts to schedule an interview, he agreed to speak with me for a total of fifteen minutes. We met in a conference room at the Office of Public Affairs and Communications on the corner of Whitney and Grove, at a long table that could seat at least sixteen people. We were joined only by Karen Peart, Yale’s Director of External Communications. A cardboard cutout of Handsome Dan, Yale’s bulldog mascot, greeted the waiting room sofas on the other side of a glass wall.
“I deserve to be here,” Siyonbola told the officers as she waited for them to allow her to go. “I paid tuition like everybody else. I am not going to justify my existence here.”
Higgins said that in the aftermath of the HGS incident, members of the Yale community have increasingly voiced concerns to him about a perceived disconnect between Yale Police officers and the communities they serve. “The reality is that we do a lot on and off campus,” Higgins said, referring to community outreach. “It was troubling to me that people said that we could be doing more. People were astounded when they heard what our officers were doing.”
According to Higgins, Yale Police officers organize blood drives and collect school supply donations. They give regular talks at public schools. The Department works with the FBI to co-run the Future Law Enforcement Youth Academy, which invites 26 high schoolers to stay in Yale dormitories for free for a week over the summer while learning about crime-fighting techniques.
Higgins said that after the HGS incident, one of his main priorities is to better publicize the Department’s outreach efforts. He recently designated two officers to comprise a Community Outreach and Engagement Team; the officers will focus full-time on strengthening the Yale Police’s relationship with the community. In the couple of weeks that the team has been active, one officer has organized an apple-picking event with a residential college, and another has invited a group of high school students to a Yale football game. The YPD has also added a role-playing component to its mandated biannual implicit bias trainings. Asked repeatedly for comment, Higgins and other YPD officials did not elaborate on the content of these trainings.
“At the end of the day, the jury is very much still out as to how effective implicit bias training is,” said Michael Sierra-Arévalo, an Assistant Professor at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice who received his PhD in Sociology at Yale and has worked with the NHPD and conducted ethnographies of several police departments across the country. “There is evidence that suggests that pre- and post- surveys of implicit bias trainings that officers scored better after training. Frankly, I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical that a couple hours of training will be able to undo decades of socialization.”
While training sessions might not eliminate discrimination, Higgins believes they do have an impact on officers. “I think one of the key strengths of anti-bias training is the ability to reduce defensiveness around the topic [of race],” he says.
Just over a month before Siyonbola was confronted in HGS, on the night of April 5, two Black gradute students prepared to leave Gryphon’s Pub, also known as GPSCY, Yale’s bar for graduate students, after a night out. (One was a man, the other a woman; both requested anonymity.) On their way out, the female student realized she’d lost her phone, and turned back to search for it. The male student decided to leave, and exited the bar, where four police cars, three SUVs and one smaller vehicle, had gathered. A couple of police officers stopped him as he walked out and refused to let him pass.
At that moment, Tarleton Watkins, a white Divinity School student, stepped outside of the bar with his roommate and noticed the Black male student, who was a friend of his, speaking with the officers. “They were in his personal space,” he remembers. “I wouldn’t say they were accosting him, necessarily, but it certainly felt like they were getting up in his face, and I think he was shaken by that.” None of the students could identify whether the officers were from the YPD or the NHPD.
Watkins approached them and called the male student by name, and asked, “Are you doing all right? Do you need any help?” The male student answered that the officers were preventing him from leaving, and Watkins asked one of the officers if there was any problem. The officer inquired in return whether Watkins knew the student, and Watkins replied that the student was his friend and classmate. The anonymous student said later that he’d told the officers exactly what Watkins had told them—that he was a member of the Yale community and that he hadn’t done anything wrong. But it was only when Watkins intervened that the officer backed away, saying that there was no longer a problem.
“It was the most, I think, stark representation of my white privilege that I had ever personally experienced,” Watkins later told me, “where an officer is very hands-on with my Black friend and then is very hands off when I, a white man, [approach] to save the day.”
Meanwhile, while the female student was searching for her phone, she noticed the police presence outside. She approached an employee of the bar that night and asked whether the police had been called. The employee, an East Asian woman who was also a graduate student, told her, “Yeah, because you guys need to go.” That’s when the female student realized the police were there for her. She exited the bar, leaving her phone behind, and observed the male student talking to the police as she walked out. But the female student kept walking, quickly and discreetly, a swirl of what-ifs gathering momentum in her mind.
“When the police are called on you, it’s a huge shift in how you view things,” she said. “It’s almost like a life or death thing.” The day after that night, she remembers, she learned from other employees at GPSCY that the employee she’d spoken to had called the police on the male student and her. She doesn’t know why. “If there’s no consequence for people to call the police, then when someone calls the police, what do you do for yourself as a student?” she continued. “You just call the police on them, too?”
All three students have submitted written testimony of that night to multiple administrators and have reached out to resources for students experiencing racial harassment at Yale, but there has been no response. The students were told that the officers kept no records of what happened, since there had been no arrest.
Laura Smith, GPSCY’s director, wrote in an email that GPSCY management, Yale administrators, and members of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate met on October 15 to discuss recent complaints. The group discussed “how best to provide a respectful, welcoming, and safe environment for everyone who patronizes GPSCY,” Smith wrote. GPSCY plans to improve training for staff at the bar and at the door, explore additional ways to collaborate with the YPD, and ensure “transparency of relevant laws and procedures.”
“A lot of the times,” the female student said, “students are being policed because they’re presumed to be not from Yale because they’re Black, and New Haven is Black. That’s the assumption.”
In the immediate aftermath of Braasch’s call to the police in May, a group of graduate students gathered to draft an open letter to the Yale administration. The letter called for specific reforms towards a more equitable campus for Black members of the community, and ultimately accumulated about 670 signatures, according to one of the letter’s authors. Among other requests, the letter asked for the founding of a Title VI office dedicated to eliminating racial discrimination on campus in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yale currently has a Title IX office devoted to fighting sex and gender discrimination on campus, but the university’s resources for community members who face racism are decentralized across various departments and schools. The administration officially encourages students who have experienced racial discrimination to either confide in their residential college dean or dean’s designee, or else to go to the Office of Equal Opportunity, which handles all kinds of discrimination. On October 9, President Salovey sent out a university-wide email introducing a new website, “Belonging at Yale,” a guide of resources for students who have faced harassment and discrimination. A few days later, on October 11, Goff-Crews, the Secretary and Vice-President for Student Life, said in a statement to the Yale Daily News that the university did not plan to implement a Title VI office, but was reviewing the efficacy of the resources it already offers.
The students’ open letter also called for a system in which Yale Police Officers would respond to non-violent calls without carrying firearms. When asked about this suggestion, Higgins responded, “Highly trained, empathetic, armed officers keep everyone safe.”
Alexia Williams, a Yale graduate student in the African-American Studies and American Studies departments who co-authored the open letter, said she is concerned about how the YPD’s presence alters students’ perceptions of other New Haven residents. “I feel that they promote defensiveness between Yale students and the New Haven community,” she said.
Williams, along with other graduate and undergraduate students, attended meetings with administrators throughout the summer to address some of the concerns expressed in the letter. She said the administration was largely receptive to listen to students’ ideas. In an email to the University in August, President Peter Salovey announced that all teaching fellows and new graduate students would undergo mandatory anti-bias and inclusivity trainings this fall, honoring a request that the letter expressed.
For Williams, these required training sessions for graduate students are essential. “During orientation, I remember a police officer saying, ‘Don’t go past this street,’ or ‘Stay in this area on campus,’ or ‘These parts of town might be dangerous,’” she recalled. “That trickles down through the graduate population so that a lot of times, when Black students come on campus, people assume that we are not meant to be there.”
“There are students on campus who are really deputized to police people of color in the area,” she said, “and, moreover, who are emboldened and empowered to weaponize the police against students of color who they feel don’t belong.”
For some students, calling the police doesn’t feel like a viable option. On a Wednesday in October 2016, during the fall semester of her senior year, Chelsey Clark, who graduated from Yale College in 2017, went out dancing with two friends at an off-campus venue that was reserved for Yale students. Clark and both friends identify as Black women. When they gathered by the back staircase inside the venue, a bouncer approached them and asked them to move in what Clark described as a “forceful” tone. The three students cleared from the staircase area. Then, without warning, the bouncer threw one of Clark’s friends to the ground. When Clark protested, he slammed her to the floor, too. He seized the friend on the ground by the neck and clutched Clark by the wrist, and dragged the two of them across the dance floor, pulling them outside. The third friend followed “screaming,” Clark recalled. As the bouncer dragged her out, Clark’s phone and student ID fell out of her hand. The sea of dancing people parted to make way, many of them watching. No one intervened.
Outside, Clark was shaken but clear-headed, running on adrenaline. She borrowed someone’s phone and called the police to report the altercation. “The optic of two Black women being dragged out of a party, that really bothered me deep down,” she said. “I know that a lot of people must have seen that and thought that we were being belligerent and maybe aggressive. And that that’s why we were being removed and that the action was justified. And that really, really ate at me for a really long time.” Clark called the police with these thoughts pulsing through her mind. She remembers thinking, “I need proof that I didn’t deserve for this to happen to me, and I need people to know that this was not fair.”
“A lot of the times,” the female student said, “students are being policed because they’re presumed to be not from Yale because they’re Black, and New Haven is Black. That’s the assumption.”
Three NHPD officers responded to Clark’s call; two of them exited the car to speak with Clark and the friends she had been with. One of the officers was white, and the other was Black. The officers responded with “dismissive” words and body language and declined to take statements from two witnesses who offered to speak to them, Clark said. At one point, she asked the officers why they weren’t taking the incident seriously. “We were just assaulted,” she told them.
“You were not assaulted,” she recalls the white officer responding.
After that, Clark left, her statement incomplete. The police contacted her the next morning in order to follow up; she declined to saywhether she pressed charges against the bouncer. But the conversation with the police officers that night was “the worst part” of what happened, Clark said. Clark has long, curly hair; when we spoke over Skype, she wore a sweatshirt from Princeton University, where she’s now pursing a doctorate in psychology. The NHPD did not respond to a request for comment.
Clark said she’d always thought of police officers as people who would have her back when she needed it. But after the altercation with the bouncer, “that just totally went away,” she said, “I don’t even want to use that resource anymore. And that’s really dangerous, because what if something else happens and I don’t feel comfortable calling the cops?”
In the months after the violent encounter with the bouncer and subsequent conversation with the police, Clark said she barely left her apartment outside of attending classes. She withdrew from friends and had some difficulty focusing on academics. “I never would have spoken about this as a student,” Clark says. “It’s only now that I’m gone that I’m like, ‘I don’t really care that much anymore.’ But while I was there, the people I went to were SHARE [Yale’s Sexual Harrassment and Assault Response & Education Center], which is confidential, and the dean of my cultural center, and I told her, ‘You can’t tell anyone, this cannot get out.’ So I think that we just need to think about the fact that this could be happening to students all the time, and we have no idea.”
Every August, first-year undergraduates, so new to Yale they’re still wearing their IDs around their necks, convene in Woolsey Hall for a mandatory talk on public safety. In past years, they watched a grainy video that followed “Lance,” a blonde, white male student who neglects to use a U-lock to secure his bicycle and lets slip to a man in baggy jeans and a bandana that he only carries hundred-dollar bills. “Please take a moment to identify with Lance,” the narrator instructed viewers at the beginning. All of the actors shown in the video are white.
This year, in the aftermath of the HGS scandal, the public safety orientation video has undergone a makeover. The new video features a more racially diverse cast and includes footage of Chief Higgins greeting passersby on the street and tossing a frisbee with a young boy. In a voiceover, Higgins asserts the YPD’s commitment to inclusivity, and a message flashes across the screen that “regardless of race, gender preference, religion or background, Yale wants everyone to feel safe, respected and valued.” Later, Higgins explains that “many of Yale’s buildings are open to the public, but some are not.” He instructs students to be prepared to show their student IDs if ever asked by a police or security officer “so that they can identify you as a member of the Yale community.” “We work day and night to keep you safe,” Higgins assures the hundreds of new students watching.
The female student involved in the GPSCY incident had participated in efforts to encourage Black prospective students to apply to Yale. But after that night in April, her perspective on welcoming new students has changed. “When this happened, it made me feel like, ‘Am I recruiting students to be vulnerable to policing?’” she says. “I’m all about, ‘Come to Yale, [it’s a] safe space, create your own community.’ But in that moment, I didn’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe. We don’t go into GPSCY anymore.”
From Chelsey Clark’s perspective, racially biased policing reduces the number of places and resources on campus that Black students feel are accessible to them. “That can really affect a person,” she says. “For me, I could never feel comfortable going back to this venue after that. And there are instances like at HGS — how could you feel comfortable in your home after something like that happens?”
— Laura Glesby is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. She is an associate editor of The New Journal.