When the Grim Reaper Shows Up at Your Door

Design by Silvia Wang

As first-year students moved onto campus less than a month ago, the Yale Benevolent Police Association (YBPA)—the Yale Police Department’s union—distributed flyers warning of the so-called dangers of New Haven. Many first-years gawked at the awkward and slightly horrifying pamphlets that warned them of the ever-present dangers of the city. The university responded with a declaration that these flyers were an attempt by the YBPA to sway ongoing contract negotiations in their favor. But these papers reveal a far deeper issue with Yale’s relationship to New Haven.

If you ask me, and for some reason the gracious editors of the Herald have, the flyers are crazy. No matter how you look at them, they make no sense! I cannot understand the reasoning behind any of the people who thought it was a good idea to write, print, and distribute them. However, I’m not here to tell the police union how to represent the interests of their officers. What do I know about being a union organizer or a police officer? Instead, I am here to comment on the flagrant disrespect for the people of New Haven and incoming Yale students that the YBPA’s flyers present. 

My concern with the YBPA’s actions are twofold: first, I worry that the flyers represent a lack of compassion from the police union as well as an unwillingness to understand the larger systemic issues that plague New Haven; secondly, that the flyers only highlight the increasing divide between student, employee, institution, and city created by the privatization of law enforcement. 

As someone who has attended Yale for one year and spent time in the non-Yale parts of greater New Haven, I feel as though the flyers are fear-mongering lies. I have personally never once felt unsafe around New Haven, as the flyers purport. Granted, I am a cis white man and there is almost constant security around campus, making my personal anecdotes about the safety of students rather moot. Nonetheless, I would say that I have more than certainly “managed to survive” New Haven, regardless of the compassionless efforts of the YBPA and their flyers. 

The flyers themselves are obviously meant to frighten students—something I find counterproductive to the YBPA’s efforts amid their ongoing contract negotiations with the university. One might think that the Yale Police Department would benefit from Yale appearing safe, yet the pamphlets say the exact opposite. One would also expect these flyers to demonstrate all the good the police do for campus. Or all the ways Yale officers ensure a safe environment which the university benefits from every day. Or talk about all the ways Yale police plan to help students throughout the year. One certainly does not expect an image of the Grim Reaper rhetorically wishing them luck in the year to come with an approval stamp from law enforcement! What kind of message is that supposed to send, other than abject alarm, in people the police are supposed to protect? I understand that these pamphlets were also meant to frighten parents, who would hopefully pressure the university into settling the negotiations with the YBPA. But this still raises one question: why publicize how poorly of a job your officers have done? 

Secondly, the actions of the YBPA strike me as concerning because they demonstrate the eventualities of privatizing law enforcement. It’s impossible to blame the Yale Police or the YBPA explicitly for why these flyers are so inherently and (if I may quote myself when I saw them for the first time) “whack as hell.” I believe these flyers are a symptom of privatizing New Haven law enforcement overall. The Yale Police are given too large a responsibility without enough oversight, leading to a sense of alienation among its officers that results in flyers like these. What are police officers to do when they receive calls from people never originally included in their contracts? How is one to respond to constant requests for aid when the requests highlight the division between school and city? Yale’s deliberate differentiation between students and New Haven residents causes officers to dissociate the two groups altogether. Yale Police are caught in the middle of a decades-long struggle between native New Haveners and the wealth of private higher education. In our case, this struggle has led to senseless pamphlets that vilify the community the police department is meant to serve.

Of course, the Yale Police have a right to unionize and print signs that promote better working conditions for themselves, but I refuse to excuse their demonization of New Haven in an effort to frighten Yale students. Afterall, if the YBPA promotes the idea that only “some manage to survive New Haven” outside its private meetings, then what do they say about New Haven behind closed doors? This is the problem with giving the power of law to private organizations whose actions are often excused by the institution that gave them that power in the first place. Yale has no incentive to correct the YBPA because the university is the one that promotes this division in the first place.  

Ultimately, these flyers are not that important in themselves—they are just pieces of paper. Nonetheless, they deserve our attention because they are a reminder of the problem we have helped create. The flyers should be a wake-up call, not to the dangers of New Haven, but to the dangers of putting the law in the hands of private institutions.

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