Yale University is refusing to let the public see how its cops dealt with a white graduate student who called in a complaint about a napping African-American graduate student — and to see whether cops treated the two students differently.
Ronnell Higgins, the university’s police chief, this week denied a request by the New Haven Independent to release body camera footage of an officer questioning the white graduate student who made the complaint, Sarah Braasch.
The Independent has filed an appeal of Yale’s denial with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission seeking to have the video released.
The African-American student, Lolade Siyonbola, made her own recording of how police questioned her on a separate floor. She posted it on Facebook Live. As of Tuesday afternoon, over 1.5 million people have watched that video.
The incident in question began at 1:40 a.m. on May 8, when Braasch awoke Siyonbola from her nap in a common room of the Hall of Graduate Studies. Siyonbola (who lives on another floor, which doesn’t have a common room) had been taking a break from working on a paper. Braasch informed Siyonbola that she didn’t belong in the common room and that she had a right to call the cops on her, which she did. (Siyonbola also captured that first encounter on a Facebook Live video. Both videos appear in the body of this story.)
The police responded. Siyonbola took them down to her room, opened the door, and then waited as they grilled her over whether she was indeed a student. They spent 15 minutes questioning her. The video went viral; national media, including The New York Times, CNN, and ABC News, covered the story, which generated debate over how police and universities deal with students of color.
One of the reasons for the delay: Two separate cops mistakenly thought that a date on Siyonbola’s ID card was an expiration date. In fact, it was a date of issuance. “It’s expired!” one officer told her. “Do you have any idea what’s going on with your Yale ID?” asked another?
Upstairs, a separate officer questioned Braasch. No video has been made public of that encounter.
One of the questions that have emerged involves whether police treated the two students differently. A university spokeswoman told the Independent (in this article) that the officer questioning Braasch did not have trouble confirming her student ID status — and that she did not use the “method” of questioning the expiration or issuance date. It took the police 11 minutes to question Braasch, then returned for another seven minutes, during which time they “admonished” her that she shouldn’t have called them to complain about Siyonbola, according to an official university account.
The university spokeswoman, Eileen O’Connor, said “the officers didn’t do anything wrong.” She said the university will remind all its officers that the dates on student IDs represent the cards’ issuance, and that students have the right to use “preferred” versions of their first names on the cards (another reason for the delay in confirming the legitimacy of Siyonbola’s card).
The Independent filed a request Saturday under the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to review the body cam video of the police questioning of Braasch to research the question of whether or not Yale cops treated a white student and a black student differently. Police departments have begun equipping their officers with body cameras over the past few years with the stated purpose of addressing precisely these kinds of cases — allowing the public to see how the police do their jobs, and holding officers accountable, when the public has expressed concerns. The cases that prompted then-President Barack Obama and chiefs across the country to adopt the cameras all involved allegations of mistreatment of blacks and Latinos.
Chief Higgins responded to the request Monday evening by email. He wrote that “the Yale Police Department will not provide the requested information.”
He cited two reasons: shielding the students’ identities, and an exception under the law for “uncorroborated allegations.”
“[T]he Yale Police Department has not released the identities of the students involved in this incident, and their safety and privacy are a matter of concern under both the FOIA (C.G.S. Sec. 1-210 (b)(3)(A)) and the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act,” Higgins wrote.
Yale might not have released the two students’ names — but millions of people have read their names in connection with this incident and watched them speak during it.
Siyonbola, of course, didn’t seek to have her name kept private. She immediately broadcast her encounters with Braasch and with the police on Facebook Live, and kept the videos there. She gave media interviews. She sought to have the incident publicized.
Media outlets from the Times to ABC to CNN to Time magazine to the Atlanta Voice, from the Associated Press to the Daily Mail to News Max to the Grio to The Root, from City Pages to the New Republic to BET to Slate — to name just a sampling — published pieces on the incident. Many named Braasch and embedded the videos.
A Google search for Siyonbola’s name turned up 307,000 results, the vast majority related to this incident. Braasch’s name produced 504,000 results, again mostly related to the incident — and to a prior incident in which she had called the university police to complain about the presence of a black Yale student in her dorm.
Higgins’ second stated reason for not releasing the body cam footage: “The information that you request was created in connection with an uncorroborated allegation of trespassing, and C.G.S. Sec. 1-210 (b)(3)(H) exempts from disclosure “uncorroborated allegations subject to destruction pursuant to section 1-216.”
“The exemption does exist,” confirmed Thomas A. Hennick, public information officer for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission. “It is subject to interpretation.”
The exemption customarily has been held to apply to cases — such as domestic violence calls — where police conclude they cannot corroborate the facts of an alleged crime because of “wildly disparate” versions, Hennick said.
In this case, the university issued a public statement (reproduced in full at the bottom of this article) stating that it had in fact drawn and corroborated conclusions, that Siyonbola did not commit a crime. And university officials have stated that the police “admonished” Braasch for calling the police in this case. None of the university’s public statements have indicated a lack of corroboration of any facts in this case.
Yale’s police department — which has government-issued powers to detain and arrest not just students, but all members of the public, and which patrols New Haven’s downtown and Dixwell neighborhoods — has a history of resisting freedom of information law.
In 2007 Yale refused an FOIA request to release personnel files of officers who arrested a 16-year-old African American from New Haven who had been riding his bicycle on a sidewalk near campus. The rider’s lawyer — then-public defender Janet Perrotti, who happened to be the then-Yale police chief’s sister-in-law — filed the FOIA request; she believed the Yale cops had racially profiled her client.
Then-Yale Police Chief James Perrotti denied the request. Yale insisted that its police force is a “private entity” not subject to public disclosure law, in part because it receives no government funding.
Janet Perrotti appealed the case to the FOIC. The FOIC ruled in her favor. It decided that Yale’s police force — which is regulated by government, certified by the state, and gets government funding indirectly through tax exemptions — indeed must follow rules of public disclosure under the FOIA. (Read a full story about the case here.)
In the appeal now before the FOIC over the body camera footage of the dormitory napping-while-black case, the commission will be asked to rule on whether the rules legally apply in this case.
Meanwhile, Yale will face the broader question of whether the public has a right to know how the university’s cops do their jobs. And whether any circumstances exist under which Yale will allow the public access to video showing their cops did their jobs in controversial incidents of public concern.
Was this ugly incident all about a petty beef over who should have user “rights” to the 12th floor tower common room? (Braasch lives on the 12th floor?, Siyonbola definitely lives on the 5th.)
Pretty nasty to sic the cops on a fellow student with a bullshit trespassing charge. But there must be some greater back-story to this seeming on-going feud between the two.
All that being said, it was jaw-dropping to watch the Yale Police detain Siyonbola for fifteen minutes, when they should have let her go on about her business. No doubt in my mind that was racial bias.
posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on May 16, 2018 10:46am
Yale’s refusal to turn over the tape makes it seems as if they are hiding something, at the very least.
Turn over the tape, Yale.
posted by: robn on May 16, 2018 12:15pm
Higgin’s legal citations are inapplicable for several reasons.
Its settled law that one does not have an expectation of privacy in a public place (which the social areas of this dorm are).
Another reason is that the very existence of body cams is to monitor and record police behavior (not just civilian/perp behavior). CGS Sec1-210(b)(3)(H) says, (b) Nothing in the Freedom of Information Act shall be construed to require disclosure of:... (3) Records of law enforcement agencies not otherwise available to the public which records were compiled in connection with the detection or investigation of crime, if the disclosure of said records would not be in the public interest because it would result in the disclosure of .... (H) uncorroborated allegations subject to destruction pursuant to section 1-216; ....because Sect 1-216 says, Except for records the retention of which is otherwise controlled by law or regulation, records of law enforcement agencies consisting of uncorroborated allegations that an individual has engaged in criminal activity shall be reviewed by the law enforcement agency one year after the creation of such records. If the existence of the alleged criminal activity cannot be corroborated within ninety days of the commencement of such review, the law enforcement agency shall destroy such records.
1-216 leads with a big exception and that is the operant phrase. Once requested through FOI for review of police conduct, the footage is of public interest and therefore can’t be slated for destruction. Whether or not the investigated civilians committed a crime is irrelevant.
“...students have the right to use “preferred” versions of their first names on the cards (another reason for the delay in confirming the legitimacy of Siyonbola’s card).” - Ms. Siyonbola’s initial delay providing her ID and Yale policy of allowing an alternative “preferred” name are the cause of the extended interaction in this situation. While I strongly oppose law enforcement attempting to force citizens to show ID in public spaces (as opposed to when operating a motor vehicle), in a private environment with established rules about ID, students and staff at Yale must be ready to provide their ID upon request for security. With modern technology, those IDs should be capable of being scanned and validated within seconds, not minutes. If that also means listing full/complete/legal names on the ID as well, do it. And for gosh sakes, how about some better training for the cops who thought the date of issue was an expiration date?
posted by: 1644 on May 16, 2018 12:57pm
rob: Common rooms are certainly not public places in the common sense of the word: the general public cannot access them. They are the equivalent of living rooms in a family home: a place students who live in a particular house or college can gather to watch television, play and listen to piano, have a social gathering like a tea, etc. They are not open to the general public. In fact, at least with colleges, one needs to belong to that particular college to access the college, and that’s the way it was with houses when I was in prep school. If one went into someone else’s common room, it was as an invited guest. Moreover, while I am not particularly familiar with HGS, the room in question may have been more of a living room for the bedrooms clustered on that floor than a common room for all dorm residents. This link has floor plans, as well as a paragraph on how access to HGS, and its residential spaces in particular, is closed. https://housing.yale.edu/graduate-housing/hall-graduate-studies-hgs-closing-may-2018
posted by: T-ski1417 on May 16, 2018 1:19pm
She was detained for 15 minutes, so what. That is not a long time at all for an investigation. She didn’t seem to mind not doing her late school paper while she was sleeping. I have no doubt that the woman who called has issues with race, not the police that responded as I’m sure they didn’t want to deal with this BS on both sides.
Secondly what the hell kind that of student ID allowes you to essentially put what ever name you want?
posted by: 1644 on May 16, 2018 2:20pm
T-Ski/Nathan: The “preferred” name think is, I believe, linked to the transgender/gender identity issue, which has been huge on campus. Basically, people are able to pick the gender they want to be, and pick a name they want to use, regardless of any official name and gender. So, though my assigned gender was male and given name was Steve, I could chose to be female and be addressed as Steffie. Or, Thurston Howell III could use “Tripp”. The use of preferred names is a recent change. Military guards have portable devices to determine if identification cards are valid. Yale police could use something similar, although it might be cumbersome to lug around. Fifteen minutes is a long time for someone under stress and sleep deprived.
posted by: robn on May 16, 2018 2:48pm
A dorm room is a private place for one or a few. A locker room is a private place for many. A common room in a dorm may not be public in the sense of the general public but it is not a private place.
posted by: Esbey on May 16, 2018 2:51pm
I agree that Yale is basically admitting that the recording, if released, would look bad.
posted by: Statestreeter on May 16, 2018 5:43pm
Yale police officers who wear a New Haven Police Department badge are ultimately governed by the New Haven police department board of commissioners. Someone should request for the police commission in New Haven override the chief and the demand the release of the video footage if they are truly people of the community who want to find the truth. You would think the boards chairman Anthony Dawson a high-ranking NAACP official would demand at least that.
posted by: 1644 on May 16, 2018 8:04pm
Robn: A common room is clearly not public in the sense of a street or park, which are what the “well-established’ law debt with. You concede that a space may be used by “a few” and still be private. How many can a “few” be? Navy berthing spaces may have forty or more sailors? Are they still private? My prep school had dorms housing from six to eighty students. Were they all private? All public? Was my college living room shared with 4 students public? If the suite had six students sharing the living room?
posted by: robn on May 16, 2018 9:35pm
Katz v US 1967
Its not reasonable to think that a person in “Common Room” of a residential building has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
posted by: narcan on May 16, 2018 10:34pm
So here we have a simple trespassing investigation that lasted well under 30 minutes and resulted in no police action besides the complainant being cautioned the subject of investigation had committed no crime.
If that is the new standard for demanding video, we are going to be spending a lot of time filing and filling FOIA requests.
posted by: BevHills730 on May 16, 2018 10:56pm
I take it back. 1644 is the perfect defender of Yale. Citing his days at prep school to draw some vague conclusion that “builds” his case against person of color, who has clearly been harassed by a white student and the Yale Police. And of course, bemoan the modern-day burdens of policing by going after transgender students.
posted by: Brutus2011 on May 17, 2018 12:13am
Why are folks citing the Freedom of Information Act when it does not apply to Yale as a private university even if it does receive federal funds somewhere along the line.
Yale can keep this information private if it wishes.
But, I believe Yale should release the video to the public.
posted by: T-ski1417 on May 17, 2018 3:26am
Wrong, 15 minutes to investigate a complaint is far from a long time, your not selling me so don’t try to.
@narcan Totally agree…
@statestreeter Also agree. I never adored with the fact the YPD officers wear NHPD badges. Their detectives don’t. They should fall under the BOPC for Mew Haven.
I also did not realize that Dawson was a ranking official at the NAACP, might be a conflict of interest but that’s my opinion.
posted by: 1644 on May 17, 2018 4:47am
Brutus: Actually, the FOIC has ruled that Yale is a public agency and subject to the FOIA. Yale contested that decision only at the FOIC level, although it is inconsistent with the court level Domestic Violence case. The facts of the case in which Yale lost are easily distinguishable from this case. That case really involved discovery in a criminal case. Yale police had arrested a member of the general public in an incontestably public place, a street. As such, they were acting as any other police force would. Here, there is no criminal case, all the action takes place in private places, and they acting more in loco parentis to defuse a juvenile squabble between a 40-something and a 30 something, There are no members of the general public involved, just Yale community members. Harvard successfully defended its police force from FOI jurisdiction by arguing that its police reports include information that other forces would never include. Both Harvard and Yale police are private but exercise general police powers, but also act as agents of their universities dealing with students. In their police roles, their law enforcement capacity, their actions should be public, but in their educational and student disciplinary roles, federal law requires privacy.
posted by: 1644 on May 17, 2018 5:08am
rob: Katz says one has a reasonable expectation of privacy even in a public phone booth. (How many students can fit in a phone booth?). I know that we have an expectation of privacy in our curtilage, even though anyone may enter it to knock on our door. An apartment hallway, particularly one with limited access like HGS’s, might be analogous to curtilage. Here, of course, everyone involved, the students and police, are members of the private community that have access to that private space, complicating the issue.
posted by: 1644 on May 17, 2018 6:01am
BevHills: What are you taking back? I am not building a case against a person of color, but trying to bring forth facts and viewpoints not otherwise in this article or the comments. Reasonably, both of us could say, we don’t live there, so we shouldn’t care what happens there, yet we both comment. Sarah B. has received much criticism, some here, but more within the Yale community. Some is fair, some is not. As others have stated, she seems notably unsuited to dorm life, and particularly unsuited to having the only room on a floor with a suite now used as common room. I know the 12th, 13th, and 14th floors used to be the GSAS Dean’s apartment, but were latter converted to student rooms. The establishment of a common room on the 12th floor appears to be much more recent. The main HGS common room is on the ground floor accessible to all GSAS students, not just residents.
posted by: wendy1 on May 17, 2018 8:42am
Did you folks know that Yale has its own SWAT and received a quarter million worth of military hardware a few years ago??? The Yale police are friendlier to me than the city police because I hang around campus and spent time heckling at SOM and I am glad these folks all have jobs. One thing that interested me was the fact that although they do have a “room” for miscreants (I asked them to paint it pink for me), they must transfer any arrestees to the city jail. We taxpayers pay for that.
posted by: BevHills730 on May 17, 2018 8:44am
So you don’t know the layout of the floor, but still insist on using anecdotes about your prep school to question if Lolade should have been up there? Even the police who harassed Lolade didn’t raise this question. It is ridiculous to go to such lengths with personal anecdotes about a different place just to question a student who was harassed.
posted by: 1644 on May 17, 2018 9:30am
Beve: When did I say she didn’t have a right to be there? Do you know the layout of the floor, or HGS rules? I do know that only residents are allowed to be unaccompanied in the HGS tower, and the police had a duty to determine that she was, in fact, a resident. Yale has conceded that it needs to better educate its officers on (a) what the date on the id means, and (b) have a data base that cross-references the “preferred” name to the legal name so officers can use the data base to verify the validity of an identification card. Ideally, police would have machines into which cards could be scanned like the military does. Such a system verifies that the card has not been reported stolen, and that the holder has not dropped, graduated, or been kicked out. Including nicknames/preferred names would help in a situation like this where someone might be using a sibling’s card. Yes, people who are no longer enrolled may return to visit friends, or settle scores, and unenrolled siblings may use a sibling’s card to gain access they are not entitled to. Sometimes, this is with the user’s permission, sometimes it is not.
posted by: alphabravocharlie on May 17, 2018 4:52pm
The Police Commission has no supervisory or disciplinary authority over the YPD. That issue was addressed in 1983.
posted by: T-ski1417 on May 18, 2018 5:39am
I did know that they had a SWAT team, why that matters as it relates to this article is beyond me and yes they did receive some equipment from the military surplus program but they have since returned it because they have bought their own. Again not sure why that was brought up.