The Yale Police Department in a Time of Historic Change

Date: 
Monday, June 22, 2020

Dear Members of the Yale Community,

The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police represents a tipping point in American policing. We must not only come to terms with hard facts, but must also act on them.

This begins at home. The Yale Police Department (YPD), which was founded in 1894, is the oldest college police force in the country, and it has through its history made substantive change when doing so was in the best interest of the Yale and greater New Haven communities. University leadership and the department recognize that now is such a time.

What we share today is the beginning of a process that will be hard, but that we must see through to the end: the reimagination of how we protect and serve our campus.   

Many at Yale and across New Haven have raised their voices in a call for a transformation of both the New Haven and Yale Police Departments. Although there is a range of views on how to achieve the work ahead, the common demand is clear: black people in our university and city must be treated with the dignity and respect to which we are all entitled. We know that this demand is just, and we agree that it has not been met consistently. We must now partner with you to build on what is working and fix what is not.

In this work, Yale’s leadership will hold itself as accountable as it holds the YPD. Our officers do difficult work with dedication and honor, and they share our commitment to looking with fresh eyes at their practices. Yale will make this transformation one of its highest priorities for the year ahead.

Much has been done already, as intensified efforts toward change at Yale were under way prior to George Floyd’s death. In April 2019, two unarmed New Haven residents, Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, were stopped by Hamden and Yale Police. Ms. Washington was shot by the Hamden officer, and the Yale officer fired his own weapon. This incident initiated a significant assessment of the YPD and its use of force, particularly as it bears on black members of our shared community. 

Over the past year, we have committed to assessing all aspects of our policing. We engaged 21CP Solutions, a consultancy that grew out of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and that comprises many academic and civic experts who have spent their careers understanding what works in policing and public safety. The 21CP team also — and critically —includes community leaders who have overseen some of the country’s most successful police efforts toward meaningful change.

On Yale’s behalf, 21CP conducted in-depth listening sessions over several months with New Haven and campus stakeholders, including students, staff, faculty, and residents. They also interviewed and shadowed police department staff and analyzed policies and procedures, comparing them to emerging best practices. Based on these data, the team offered specific recommendations for how Yale could improve public safety through better policies, procedures, and training, and by strengthening trust and partnerships on and off campus. The recommendations are excellent, and we have already put many of them in place.

21CP’s report can be found here.

The theme that most frequently emerged in 21CP’s listening sessions was the sense that policing on campus too often seems to happen to the community rather than with it. To address this challenge successfully, we are reassessing and reshaping major aspects of policing at Yale.

To begin, the YPD has committed to the following:

Earning trust and legitimacy through actions, not words.
We have engaged faculty, staff, and students in conversations about their experiences with and perceptions of police, and we are determined to continue those conversations. The steps we identify here are a beginning, and must be open to constant revision in response to our relationship with you, the members of our community.

Limiting police response to calls that would be addressed better by trained mental health, student life, and counseling professionals.
Calls to the Yale Police Department are now answered by dispatchers who inquire whether the caller needs police, fire, or mental health services. Yale police will continue to respond to crimes on campus, but Yale is working right now to develop better ways for the university’s existing crisis intervention team to be activated when YPD receives calls unrelated to crime. As new protocols come online, we will keep the community informed.

Policing without military equipment.
Yale will continue not to use military equipment. YPD does not participate in the 1033 Program, a part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Enforcement Support Office that provides equipment to local law enforcement agencies. YPD previously acquired surplus equipment —not monetary funds — through the program, but returned all of it more than six years ago after determining that participation in the program did not align with our policing practices.

New scenario-based training in de-escalation techniques and reduction of use of force.
Our goal is to reduce greatly the chances that the YPD will use force in any given incident. While we respect calls for the disarmament of the YPD, Yale must have the ability to respond swiftly and effectively to threats of deadly violence on campus. Universities across the United States have suffered incidents of both targeted and indiscriminate shootings: these are events when police response time is critical to life safety.

All YPD officers already receive formal training in de-escalation and crisis intervention. Use of force absolutely must be the last option.

Expressly requiring all officers to intervene in, stop, and immediately report any incidents of excessive use of force by a fellow police officer. 
This is a critical change, as it brings shared accountability to the most serious violation of public trust a police officer can commit.

This requirement builds on our existing policies. YPD does not train officers to use chokeholds, strangleholds, or any other similar measures. And we are giving renewed attention to the question of when it is permissible for a YPD officer to draw a firearm. We seek to make that as rare an occurrence as possible.

Resetting exactly where we patrol.
We will work more closely with the New Haven Police Department to ensure that we police only agreed-upon designated areas.

###

The work ahead of us will be difficult, but our goal is clear. We will strive to bring to zero the number of incidents of questionable policing involving students and others on campus, and we will endeavor to set an example of progressive policing for other colleges and universities. What is described above is a necessary beginning—but it is only a beginning. We look forward to ongoing engagement with all of you to build a world in which justice, safety, and accountability are shared pursuits.

Sincerely,

Ronnell A. Higgins (See additional note, below)
Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police

Janet Lindner
Vice President for Human Resources & Administration

Jack F. Callahan, Jr.
Senior Vice President for Operations

Peter Salovey
President

A special note from Chief Ronnell Higgins
I co-author the above letter as your proud Chief of Police. I write also as a black man and father who has lived in New Haven virtually his entire life, and who loves what he does, where he does it, and who he does it for: the Yale and broader New Haven community. I am the son of a father who also chose this profession, and whose excellent police career in this city was damaged by his speaking out against the vicious police beating of a young black man: my own brother. I approach the urgent issue of racism in policing as a matter of professional duty and longtime personal obligation.

I was horrified by what I witnessed in Minneapolis. George Floyd was treated as less than human in a most shocking and public forum that unmasked the worst we can see from another human being. As a public safety official for over 23 years, I found myself filled with grief, pain, and a sense of disgust, not only by the killing of Mr. Floyd, but also by the painful reality that it was those who were charged with serving and protecting him who callously took his life. I have found myself, like so many good law enforcement officials who feel to me like family, profoundly sad as I try to put on my uniform without feeling a sense of great loss at the realization that for many, what should be a symbol of peace and a beacon of hope instead symbolizes pain, hurt, and fear.

As a result of what we all witnessed, rightful outrage, protests, and calls for cultural change have been brought to the fore. The voices of the disenfranchised, the voices of those victimized by the police, the voices of those who have experienced injustice, and the voices of those seeking change have been empowered across our country in a historic moment—and a historic opportunity. 

I sincerely believe that the law enforcement profession, including those of us serving the Yale and New Haven communities, must share in the outrage and the demands for change. Our Public Safety team depends for its success on the trust of those it serves and protects.  Open lines of communication, transparency, accountability, and collaboration are essential elements in acquiring and maintaining that trust.

Further, our community must know that respect for all is our foundational core; bias and profiling based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or beliefs are antithetical to what we aspire to be as an organization and are simply not tolerated. Our core values are based in empathy — which I have found to be a journey that requires education, inner reflection, and outward action that reflects an appreciation for others and an understanding of our role within the Yale community. And so I join President Salovey’s call that we must do what we can to replace fear with hope — “and not with anything less than action.” I look forward to opportunities to join hands and undertake the difficult but noble work required of us.

I have had many conversations with my fellow officers, individually and in groups, and I can tell you that they share my sense of anguish, but also my sense of purpose. In working to ensure that the Yale Police Department is a force for good for all of us, we know that we cannot succeed without your help, and that we need to listen—especially when what we hear is painful.

To even our greatest critics, I say: thank you. I am listening.