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Reform is not an option: A response to 21CP’s recommendations for the Yale Police Department

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Foreword

This Summer, after a year-long delay, and only after significant pressure from Black Students for Disarmament at Yale (BSDY) and other community organizers, Yale University released Twenty-First Century Policing’s (21CP) assessment of the Yale Police Department (YPD). Yale contracted 21CP to “provide specific recommendations for how Yale could improve public safety,” following the tragic shooting of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon involving YPD Officer Terrance Pollock. Aside from an investigation by the State’s Attorney, hiring 21CP was Yale’s main response to the shooting.

Below is our response to 21CP’s assessment. We discuss several 21CP recommendations and why they ultimately failed to address the root, systemic issues of racism and racialized violence that plague police departments throughout the country, including the YPD. 21CP offers a reformist approach, maintaining that racist policing can be “fixed” through various checks and stopgaps. If this were true, we would have seen undeniable success following the mass implementation of reformist measures — such as increased implicit bias training and bodycam usage — over the last five years. Instead, these reforms have largely failed. Banning choke-holds in New York did not stop the NYPD from using one to murder Eric Garner. Instituting de-escalation training in Seattle did not stop the Seattle police from murdering Charleena Lyles. Officer Terrance Pollock had both his bodycam and dashboard camera off during the New Haven shooting, even though activated cameras were mandatory. What we see instead, and what incrementalist police reforms miss, is that anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence is policing working just as it was intended.

Policing, as we know it, was born from the colonization of Indigenous peoples and the institution of slavery. Early New England settlers had “Indian constables” that terrorized Indigenous communities, and many cities across the South instituted slave patrols to capture and punish slaves who tried to escape. We can trace a similarly racialized history through our own University’s police department. The very first Yale officers in 1894 saw their first task as “keep[ing] all suspicious characters from the campus,” which included kicking “tramps” out of basements and a “colored gentleman” out of a building entrance. The 1970s saw an increase in both students of color and political dissidents on Yale’s campus. In response, the YPD increased its levels of militarization. Policing is not random, nor is it a ubiquitous logic; it has been created, maintained, and heightened within very specific political contexts. Looking back through history we are left to wonder, what was the foundational mission of the YPD if not the protection of private property at the expense of Black lives?

With this in mind, it would be irresponsible to conduct any sort of analysis of endemic police violence toward Black communities without first acknowledging the systemic racism inherent to policing. Given these racist foundations, advocating for expansion of any kind — cost, size, or scope — of the police would be unethical.

Although we are only discussing 21CP’s assessment, there is a larger critique to be made of Yale’s inadequate response to police violence. In a time when Black folks are treated as disposable, and in a city where Black activists are leading the call for divestment, Yale needs to do more than contract a consulting company that limits its policy to band-aid reform. Yale can do more than releasing a reformist assessment a year late when thousands across the country — including many brilliant Yale professors — are calling for abolition.

The Yale Police Department is a private, militarized college police force that exists in a city already patrolled twice over by other departments. Nothing short of abolition is acceptable.

Response

In their 2019 report, 21st Century Policing provides an overview of the YPD, a description of their methodology, and the details of their survey, along with structural and technological recommendations for the YPD to fulfill its “missions, objectives, and values.” The large majority of the recommendations fall short in one of two ways: by failing to analyze root questions of systemic racism and inequality, or ultimately leading to the expansion and re-entrenchment of the YPD’s scope and size.

21CP’s investigation revealed problems systemic to the YPD, problems which community members and BSDY had already identified. 21CP found that Black people in New Haven report experiencing more negative interactions with the YPD than their white counterparts (8). This finding is unsurprising—the over-policing of Black people is endemic to campus police forces across the United States. While 21CP’s report notes the Black community’s mistrust of the YPD, it fails to pursue an analysis of YPD arrests by race. 21CP has conducted such studies in other reports, studies that prove extremely revealing about the impact of policing on communities along lines of race and class. For example, in a report on the Sacramento Police Department, 21CP analyzes racial disparities in the use of force, stops, and arrests against Sacramento community members. 21CP states that, even though Black people only comprise a small minority of the Sacramento population, Black residents were involved in almost half of the use of force incidents and were arrested at a greater frequency than white residents. 21CP’s failure to address racial disparities in Yale’s policing, given that it is capable of such analysis, is a blatant oversight.

Instead, without rigorously addressing the problem of racialized policing by the YPD, 21CP offers incrementalist and ineffectual reforms. This approach offends the dignity of Black people and their allies for whom incrementalist reform is not enough. In the report, 21CP writes that “[officers] are often called to address situations and people that the remainder of the social service fabric has forgotten or left behind (74).” Here, the report’s writers acknowledge how modern policing, by nature, targets people with compounded vulnerabilities, but then they go on to propose recommendations that would only expand the scope and power of the YPD. In this response, we hope to address the findings and recommendations of 21CP’s report.

The YPD is unjustifiably militarized. As the report notes, the YPD is already “integrated into NHPD crisis, bomb, and hostage teams (13).” Yale has its own Specialized Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, which is a type of extreme militarized policing popularized in Los Angeles during the 1960s with the specific intention of suppressing and murdering Black political dissenters. SWAT teams carry military equipment and routinely execute “‘no-knock’” drug raids— the intrusive and violent policing tactic which recently led to the murder of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. The report acknowledges that it is unusual for Yale to have a SWAT team, “with most of the peer benchmark institutions that [they] identified not maintaining such a team” (61), but fails to further interrogate the existence of a private campus police SWAT team. The proposed recommendation also falls short: instead of asking why such a team exists, or explicitly demanding that resources be diverted from the team, 21CP recommends instead that the YPD internally evaluate the extent of resources it wishes to invest in its SWAT operations. Why does a private university need its own SWAT team in the first place?

Over-militarization is just one negative result of the collusion of the YPD and New Haven Police Department; in fact, the strongest recommendation 21CP’s report makes is to strengthen the relationship between the YPD and the NHPD. The report suggests creating reality-based scenarios to jointly train NHPD and YPD officers (48), sharing information through updated technologies and systems, and coordinating interdepartmental PR strategies (51). By suggesting further integration of the YPD into NHPD patrols and training, including their most violent and racist tactics, 21CP’s reforms only make the problem worse (13). Collaboration between the YPD and other municipal police forces results in the ruthless targeting of Black and brown New Haven residents. A clear example was the Yale and Hamden police officers’ shooting of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon in 2019. The recommendation that a private, unaccountable police force should be further involved in policing New Haven communities blatantly ignores the central problem — the YPD’s unchecked jurisdiction and power — and disregards community members’ repeated calls to end the unjust triple occupation. Instead of acknowledging the tragic consequences of the NHPD, HPD, and YPD policing New Haven residents, 21CP suggests that this cooperation is beneficial, writing, “Law enforcement has long understood that multi-jurisdictional multi-agency cooperation can benefit enforcement and investigative efforts of criminal activities” (48). Further cooperation between the NHPD and YPD is not “reimagining public safety” at Yale, but rather disregarding community members’ demands and entrenching a system of over-militarized, overreaching policing and surveillance.

In every section of its report, 21CP recommends funneling more money and expanding the scope of the YPD. For example, they recommend increased designated time “off the radio” to work with the community and engage in community problem-solving (23), participation in non-YPD activities and discussions, designating liaisons to interact with the cultural houses (26), and scenario-based training on use of force and decision-making (43). With a budget of $34.9 million, and with YPD officers receiving the highest police salary in the state (the starting salary for YPD officers is $76,000 and will be $96,000 by the termination of the newest contract in 2023), this unaccountable force is already grossly overpaid. Why should we contribute more money to the YPD when that same money could improve mental health resources and financial assistance at Yale or contribute to Yale paying its fair share to New Haven?

Even seemingly promising aspects of the report disappoint in their descriptions. 21CP acknowledges that there is a need for a differential response model, in which people other than the YPD take the lead in situations such as mental health crises, with officers assisting as backup (8). While this is a step toward progress, it still advocates for armed personnel from an unaccountable, private, militarized, and armed police force to take part in addressing situations outside of their expertise. This recommendation is also concerning because joint responses could encourage carceral logic and methodologies to seep into systems that are not inherently built around principles of surveillance and policing. For example, widespread police intervention in psychiatric crises has criminalized mental illness, funneling people into the criminal justice system instead of providing them with the care they need. Further, this reform maintains that, in order for a person in need to obtain the necessary care, they must encounter an armed officer.

The report also recommends expanding the scope of community policing as a way to increase trust. Building relationships with community members is currently the job of two specifically designated community policing officers (21). While it is true that the community does not trust the YPD and that the YPD’s community engagement has essentially operated as a public relations campaign, the report’s solution is harmful and wasteful. ‘Community policing’ — the modern reformist’s buzzword — is an empty phrase. A recent study suggested that community policing did not significantly make communities safer or reduce crime. At best, community policing is a strategy in perception-management for the police, seeking to inflate police legitimacy with no real benefits extending to the surrounding community. At worst, it justifies increased police presence in neighborhoods healing from police violence. The report proposes that the YPD force community members to further engage with police officers on a daily basis by having them show up to “a broader array of campus activities and discussions (25).” This recommendation only increases the YPD’s funding and training, and forces community members to spend more time under the watch of armed officers. As highlighted in this opinion piece by Derecka Purnell and Marbre Stahly-Butts, it is critical to recognize that asking police officers to strengthen community relationships — including by doing things like playing football with children or handing out ice cream — does not reduce their power to harm anyone.”

21CP recommends that the YPD implement a new mechanism for the independent review of internal affairs, due to the skepticism that people have toward law enforcement “policing themselves on matters of misconduct” (58). While this is intended to provide greater accountability, these mechanisms have historically failed. Civilian review boards have often been the site of inadequate funding, limited authority, and political manipulation. Even in the best-case scenario, when these boards have adequate funding and leeway, they get little to no power to implement their demands. For example, police commanders in New York City rejected board recommendations in 90 percent of the cases in 2012. Given that the YPD was already resistant to releasing the recommendations from the 21CP report, how can we have any faith that they would listen to recommendations from an independent review board?

This recommendation mirrors countless other ineffective calls for police accountability, because it ultimately does not address the inherent violence and racial bias ingrained in how we approach public safety. Instead, recommendations like this often serve more to pacify community activists while covertly increasing the YPD’s funding and power, rather than to propose data-driven solutions that would challenge the status quo. It is illogical to claim that independent review boards will work for the YPD when we see that these strategies are failing in local police departments across the country.

21CP’s report recommends incrementalist reforms that do little to address deeper systemic issues. 21CP recommends that Yale adopt a consistent hiring and recruitment plan, as well as increase diversity by “enhancing female representation and…[encouraging] diverse candidates” (69). These changes will do nothing to benefit the community at large, but rather act to improve optics through superficial diversity measures. 21CP has historically recommended that law enforcement reflect the racial demographics of the communities they police (21CP’s President’s Task Force, 30) (21CP’s South Bend Report, 57) (21CP’s Sacramento Report, 76,84,87). This reform has repeatedly proven to be a failure as, regardless of their race, officers have similar implicit biases. Furthermore, in the section on staffing the YPD, 21CP states that 68% of 81,612 dispatches involving YPD officers, made between January 1, 2014, and October 10, 2019, were “self-initiated” by the officers (71). The fact that more than two-thirds of these dispatches reported activity that the officers called in themselves reflects how law enforcement overpolices communities of color. Despite these statistics, 21CP does not recommend reducing the police force or even ceasing hires. Rather, they request that a consistent hiring and recruitment plan be developed and even recommend that the YPD “explore ways of increasing foot, bike, and Segway patrols” (72). These recommendations only diversify the ways in which the YPD can carry out its core function: the protection of private property at the expense of Black lives.

The recommendation for clarification of use-of-force and pursuit policies are improvements (39–48). However, these recommendations are minimal and do not address the unrelenting calls from community and student activists for YPD’s disarmament. The report fails to acknowledge that the most effective way to prevent police violence is by disarming the police, especially when the majority of the calls received by the YPD do not usually require an armed response.

The majority of 21CP’s recommendations only serve to legitimize, fund, and re-entrench the YPD’s power. Not only does the report fail to recommend a process to redress the racist history of the YPD dating back to its inception, it also fails to suggest solutions that address the systemic problem of racial policing in New Haven and at Yale. Recommendations like the differential response model, which should be a step in the right direction, are rendered meaningless by their inclusion of armed police. Suggesting diverse patrol methods, further collusion with the NHPD, and the implementation of community policing strategies ignores the hordes of New Haven community members and organizers calling for YPD disarmament and less police presence overall. Moreover, many notable Obama-era reform policies —such as diversity hiring and community policing— are failing to significantly combat police violence.

We are not simply opposing the expansion of the YPD, but the existence of the YPD. From the outset, 21CP’s report asserts the need for an extant YPD, making recommendations without attempting to imagine solutions that could extend beyond a tired and broken institution. But to think an entity needs to exist just because it already does is circular, and unimaginative. If Yale truly wants to reimagine public safety, the university must first untether itself from funneling money into a department that's superfluous on its best days, and violent on its worst. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, President Salovey stated that “we must not only come to terms with hard facts but must also act on them.” Here are the facts: police departments that have undergone years of reform are still killing Black people. Reform is no longer an option, the YPD must be disarmed and abolished.

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