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The new blue

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In 1894, a riot broke out in New Haven, provoked by rumors that Yale medical students were digging up freshly buried bodies to use as cadavers. Yalies and New Haven residents alike were injured in the melee, and while tension between the groups was nothing new, the intensity of the conflict—and perhaps the nature of the rumors that had fueled it—forced Elm City and university officials alike to come to the table, searching for a way to improve their troubled coexistence.

At the time, city police rarely ventured onto Yale’s grounds, and when they did, they were met with skepticism and even open hostility. But in the wake of the cadaver riot, the university and the NHPD agreed to have two officers live permanently on Yale’s campus. When students warmed to the policemen’s presence, the university hired them to found a new police department, the first university-affiliated force in the country.

So begins the history of the Yale Police Department (YPD). I was at their headquarters last Tuesday night, waiting for the first session of department’s twice-annual Citizen Police Academy to begin. Now in its seventh year, the Academy is a free, six-week course in the operations of a functional police force and of law enforcement in general. Attendees meet officers, study the YPD’s impressive and little-known capabilities, and learn how to avoid exposing themselves to crime—tips that the Academy’s organizers hope they will disperse throughout the Yale community. But beyond that, the Academy seeks to promote a friendlier image of police than one might otherwise imagine.

“They see us as people,” Assistant Chief Mike Patten said of those who complete the course. In the wake of the cadaver riots, it was students who opened their doors to the police; through the Citizen’s academy, the YPD returns the gesture.

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The program’s 20 or so attendees include students, community members, faculty and even Silliman College Dean Hugh Flick. They’re here for reasons both personal and practical: the security directors from the Yale Center for British Art and the Peabody Museum hope to establish a relationship with the police, others are interested in police work as a career, and one woman mentions her affinity for cop shows, which gets a laugh. We all sit at tables around the edges of the YPD’s training room. It’s a large, carpeted space with a lectern, a projector, and walls painted a municipal white. In the middle stand the three officers conducting the program: Patten, Assistant Chief Steven Woznyk, and Lieutenant Von Narcisse, a head taller than his two superiors. Narcisse runs the program, but it’s Patten who takes the floor first, pacing the middle of the room and clicking through slides in a PowerPoint as he explains the program’s intentions and structure. He then moves on to talk about the YPD itself.

“Anything the police department does where you live,” Patten explains, “we do.”

A woman next to me raises her hand. “What about horses? Do you have horses?” she asks in a thick Dutch accent.

Patten laughs and explains that no, the YPD does not have horses, although it does have a Segway. But many in the room register genuine surprise at his first assertion of the YPD’s capabilities. In fact, none of the attendees I spoke to had understood initially that the YPD was a full-fledged police force, with the same legal stature as the NHPD. The YPD derives its legal authority from New Haven’s Board of Police Commissioners, a civilian legal body that also authorizes the NHPD. The two departments even wear the same badge.

Much of the Academy is dedicated to explaining the YPD’s capabilities and responsibilities to those who might otherwise have taken its officers for glorified security guards. The course curriculum covers the department’s patrol procedures, its communication technology, and its interactions with the FBI and the Secret Service. (“We made a lot of money off Tony Blair,” Patten said. “He always comes in at night, so you get overtime.”) The YPD even has its own bomb squad, which stays busy doing sweeps before visits from the aforementioned dignitaries. The star of the show is undeniably the department’s bomb-sniffing dog, Whitney. When Whitney’s handler, officer Charlie Habron, lets her roam the classroom, she licks one attendee’s face in pursuit of some Cheez-It residue. Later, Habron gives us a demonstration of Whitney’s bomb-sniffing prowess, hiding a few shotgun shells under a trashcan in the corner for her to discover. When she sits down next to the trashcan to alert Habron of her find, he rewards her with treats—how else do you expect to train a police dog?

“I’ll tell you one thing,” said Jeremy Goldstein, DC ’14, who took the class in fall of 2013. “I definitely feel a lot safer walking around Yale.” He cites the department’s technology as a reason: “All those blue phones have a 360-degree camera that is constantly recording,” he told me. “They can see anything at any time.”

Goldstein is in SAE, and is part of the fraternity’s new but growing connection to the Academy: during the course, when a few students introduce themselves as members of a fraternity, Assistant Chief Woznyk immediately asks if they are from SAE, which two of them are. After Goldstein took the class, then-SAE president Leander McCormick-Goodhart, BK ’15, took it the following fall with an eye towards improving relations between the YPD and his fraternity.

“When a fraternity has a party, and the police come to break it up, it’s better that they know the people,” Goldstein explained to me. “Having that relationship is very disarming in what can otherwise be a more tense situation.”

Zubin Mittal, TD ’16, one of the SAE brothers that attended Tuesday’s class, said much the same thing. He told me that that Goldstein and McCormick-Goodhart are on a first-name basis with many police officers, and that as a result, interactions with police who show up at SAE’s parties are “friendlier than I expected.”

“Friendlier than I expected” could be a slogan for the course as a whole. Among its core aims, Woznyk said in an email, is to “foster partnerships between the YPD and the Yale and Greater New Haven community.” “Partnership” probably isn’t the first word that springs to mind when one thinks of the police, and the Academy’s organizers know this. “But who is the only person in the world who can take someone’s life legally, without anyone else reviewing it?” Patten asked. “A police officer, right?” Given this, Patten went on to stress the importance of the trust that the police must earn from citizens. “Trust” is one of four words on the YPD’s crest.

The authority police have over others often leads them to be cast in a bad light, Patten acknowledged, and he dwelled for a while on the negative perception often held of officers like himself.  Not that this seems to be an issue among the present crowd, many of whom profess an interest in law enforcement or a fondness for cop shows, and only one of whom admits to ever having a negative experience with a police officer. But there is, as one attendee put it to me later, an inescapable “Oh shit!” reaction to the presence of police in any situation: presiding over pat-downs at a baseball game, weaving through traffic in your rear view mirror. Working past or at least minimizing that reaction is a focus for Woznyk, Narcisse and Patten, as they joke incessantly with the civilians around them.

“I certainly didn’t have a negative perception of police beforehand,” Goldstein said. “But having developed relationships with them, it’s a nice thing. There’s one officer who taught a bunch of the classes, he just got married a couple months ago, I saw him and we spoke about that for a while, he asked me about my thesis.”

The NHPD runs a similar program with similar aims that’s now in its 14th year. As they do in the YPD’s Academy, enrollees get an up-close look at the NHPD’s operations, meeting the bomb dog and the SWAT team. But the realities under which the NHPD operates sets their Citizens’ Academy apart. “Back in the 80s, we had this perception that cops didn’t relate to the public—that we went out and we beat down on people,” said officer Jacqueline Hoyte of the NHPD. “We want to change those negative perceptions.”

Perceptions, Hoyte said, are key to police work, and especially to the up-close-and-personal “community policing” that the department adopted under Chief Dean Esserman. Esserman himself always makes an appearance at the Citizen Academy. It’s all in the name of “partnership,” said Hoyte—the same word I heard from Woznyk. And just as I heard from Patten, Hoyte tells me that Academy attendees often come to a startling realization about police officers: “You’re just regular people!” And that improved relationship with the police often has concrete results; Hoyte tells me of one man who, after finishing the Academy, went on to start a local block watch.

***

Back at the YPD, the session closes with a group photo. Whitney, the bomb-sniffing dog, is of course front and center; we have to snap a few photos before she agrees to look at the camera. The picture finally taken, everyone shakes hands and gets their parking passes validated before scattering to their cars. On the walk back to campus, I can’t help but feel a little bit safer.