Justice for Stephanie and Paul, one year later
I n the early hours of the morning on April 16, 2019, Hamden police officer Devon Eaton and Yale Police officer Terrance Pollock fired 13 and three shots, respectively, at Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, an unarmed black couple in their car.
The day of the shooting, life on Yale’s campus continued as normal, spare a morning email from YPD Chief Ronnell Higgins and an evening one from Vice President for Human Resources and Administration Janet Lindner. The admissions office and student groups were busy running Bulldog Days, which was scheduled from April 15 to 17. But beyond campus borders, a movement was growing. Activist groups, including People Against Police Brutality and Black Lives Matter New Haven, organized an evening rally outside the Hamden Police Department, drawing a crowd of about 200. Later that night, organizers protested at the site of the shooting on Dixwell Avenue and Argyle Street.
“I think we all built, during this time, the foundation for a relationship rooted in solidarity,” People Against Police Brutality organizer Kerry Ellington told the News in an April 14 interview. “I think all the different communities that were involved wanted to — and still want to — see an end goal where both officers are held accountable for their reckless actions on April 16 of last year.”
The following day, New Haven and Hamden mayors and police chiefs hosted a briefing that was absent of University officials and clear-cut answers. In addition to city activists, about a dozen student leaders from the Afro-American Cultural Center and Af-Am House Dean Rise Nelson attended. In a debrief behind City Hall, Yale students discussed next steps: New Haven and Hamden community activists would be protesting at University President Peter Salovey’s house within the hour, and several Yalies decided to join.
The demonstration started on Hillhouse Avenue and ended at YPD headquarters — and the path between the two, rather than initially suggested city streets, took demonstrators through the heart of campus and into the courtyard of Pauli Murray College.
“There was going to purposely be an effort to not allow anyone at Yale to ignore what was going on,” Black Men’s Union Solidarity Chair Isaac Yearwood ’22 said in an April 10 interview. “If you are on this campus and you have the capacity to be a part of this and you choose not to, you’re complicit.”
Several students expressed disappointment and frustration with the lack of student turnout that evening. Yearwood acknowledged the pressures on Yale students at the time — from Bulldog Days to looming final exams — but underscored that he views showing up for community activists, whether in person or on social media, as an obligation. Over the past year, student and community activists have collaborated to organize around last April’s shooting and a broader set of issues — building relationships that have transcended the incident that spurred them.
“There have always been iterations of students who have come through to this city who have really understood the significance of connecting with the community,” Ellington told the News. “So I don’t want to disregard students that I’ve worked with and organized with in the past … But [the shooting was] definitely, I would say, a significant moment for both black and brown Yale students on campus and black and brown residents in New Haven — a moment that was clear to come together, clear to make a united call.”
Student leaders from a slew of Af-Am House organizations and other spaces had been in constant conversation since that Wednesday night. Community organizers were planning a rally outside Woodbridge Hall for Thursday afternoon.
Having exchanged contact information following the demonstration at Salovey’s house and tapped into existing networks, University and city activists convened in the Founders’ Room of the Af-Am House on Thursday afternoon, hours before the rally was slated to start.
“To see a group of young black Yale students sit down and learn from [local activists] was amazing,” Elm City Vineyard Lead Pastor Joshua Williams ’08 DIV ’11 said in an April 13 interview. He was involved in race-related student activism during his time at Yale and said that New Haven’s black community had played a pivotal role in movements like the one to change the name of Calhoun College.
Yale students showing up for New Haven in the wake of the shooting, he said, was a “twin moment” paired with dining hall worker Corey Menafee smashing a window in protest of Grace Hopper College’s former namesake. New Haven residents have consistently fought for Yale students of color, he said, and students followed and reciprocated in the Founders’ Room that Thursday.
“In terms of an urgent response, it was the first time I had seen black students have this incredible deference to black New Haven — [asking] black New Haven to lead [so that Yale students] could follow,” Williams told the News. “That meeting set the backbone [for what was] clearly, by far, the most powerful protest I had been a part of in terms of New Haven activism [and] Yale activism.”
Yearwood said that the Founders’ Room meeting was marked by an instant sense of trust and solidarity. Everyone in the room was “there for the person that sat next to them,” he said, despite some having met only the night — or never — before.
Yale Black Women’s Coalition President Imani Richardson ’21 and Black Men’s Union Vice President Ben Dormus ’21 both said that the meeting reinforced that the Tuesday shooting was not an isolated instance, but rather part of a larger pattern of violence.
Within three hours, organizers were outside Woodbridge Hall, leading a rally that marked the beginning of a 500-person, seven-hour protest that shut down several major thoroughfare streets in the Elm City.
“JUSTICE FOR STEPHANIE, JUSTICE FOR PAUL”
Yearwood and Ellington at the Thursday protest. Courtesy of Sydney Holmes '20.
Salovey said in a University-wide email on April 17 that the YPD officer had been placed on paid administrative leave and that the University could conduct its own investigation only once state officials had completed theirs. Eight months later — a timeframe not lost on those who had called for Pollock’s immediate firing — the University announced that Pollock, who had not been charged by the state, would be reassigned to a position that does not require a gun or a uniform.
While organizers had long advocated for Pollock’s termination, Laurie Sweet of Hamden Action Now — an organization formed in the wake of the shooting — told the News that Pollock’s shift to desk duty was a “small victory.”
But April’s shooting, in the eyes of many front-line activists, was a tragic symptom of a deeper systemic problem of violence against minority communities — a problem that Pollock’s eventual reassignment did not solve, they said.
“There is a larger context of state-sanctioned violence that we are in,” Ellington said outside Woodbridge Hall the Thursday following the shooting. “[Washington and Witherspoon] did absolutely nothing wrong. And even if they did do something wrong, it still wouldn’t be cause for deprivation of their rights. Why is it okay?”
Local activists called for a fair and thorough investigation from the state and the immediate release of all relevant camera footage.
Connecticut State Police made that footage — which included Hamden police body camera footage and all relevant dispatch audio — public about a week later. Pollock’s footage was unavailable, as he failed to turn on his camera at the time of the incident.
John Rovella, the commissioner of the State Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, said at the time that it was “unheard of” that the state police were “putting [the footage] out so quickly.” This marked a departure from normal operating procedures, he said, as footage is usually released only after termination of an investigation, which was to be conducted by State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin.
Months later, in July — following a legislative debate about police accountability reinvigorated by April’s shooting and another incident in Wethersfield — then-Gov. Dannel Malloy signed a bill requiring footage release within 96 hours of a public request.
The State’s Attorney concluded and published the results of his investigation in the fall. Griffin announced on Oct. 21 that, per the recommendation of his report, Connecticut had filed felony and misdemeanor charges against Eaton. Griffin declined to recommend charges for Pollock, who fired three shots after his own patrol car had been hit by a stray bullet from Eaton.
The existence of that investigation, Sweet said, was a win in itself. Connecticut law requires the state to investigate only fatal police shootings, she explained. This, she continued, means that the pressure she and others put on Hamden and the state forced the system to provide some measure of accountability, albeit slowly.
But in the aftermath of the investigation, activists continued to push for more decisive action from the state and the University. Yale Black Women’s Coalition Publicist Zoe Hopson ’22 recalled meeting Ellington and others at a local office building with Black Men’s Union Community Outreach Chair Jaelen King ’22 and Yearwood to plan next steps. About one week after the report was released, protesters from a coalition of community and student groups occupied the Broadway island at The Shops at Yale to call for both officers’ termination.
One town over, the Hamden Police Department responded to the state’s report by switching Eaton’s administrative leave from paid to unpaid, which remains his current status. Eaton pleaded not guilty to all criminal charges in a court appearance on Nov. 5.
With the state’s report complete, the Hamden Police Commission stated that it would wait for then-Acting Hamden Police Chief John Cappiello to conduct an internal investigation into Eaton’s actions and make a recommendation. Frustrated by continued delays and outraged that Eaton’s status had not made the Hamden Police Commission’s Nov. 13 meeting agenda — the first since the state’s report — around 100 student and community activists delivered heated speeches in the meeting’s public comment section.
“I feel enraged that it’s taken this long for the commission to be minimally receptive,” Ellington said in an interview at the time. “We shouldn’t be pleading to the police commission to put a near-attempted murder by their police officers on their agenda. We’ve seen the state turn a blind eye to these killings.”
At the end of the meeting, the commission confirmed that Cappiello would make an employment recommendation by Nov. 20.
Come Nov. 20, Cappiello recommended firing Eaton for committing multiple violations of the Hamden Police Rules and Regulations. According to several activists, this recommendation — which arrived seven months after the shooting — was the direct result of applied pressure.
Following the recommendation, the commission would have up to 30 days to commence with hearings. But before those 30 days were up, a court order prohibited further action.
On Dec. 6, New Haven Superior Court Judge John Blue granted an injunction — requested by the Hamden Police Union — that prevents the police commission from acting on Eaton’s employment status until his criminal case is resolved. Five months later, the case is ongoing.
Across the board, organizers agree that there is still much more work to do, beyond the immediate goal of holding Eaton criminally liable for his actions. Across the state, there were three fatal police shootings in the first 23 days of this year. One of the victims, Mubarak Soulemane, was a New Haven resident.
This constituted a “state of emergency” of police violence in New Haven, Hopson said. Others interviewed by the News agreed — the fight is far from over.
On both Yale and New Haven fronts, activists’ earliest demands focused on the involved officers and the timeliness and fairness of state and University investigations. But community organizers also repeated long-standing calls for greater accountability in the criminal justice system. Within days, Black Students for Disarmament at Yale, or BSDY — which formed in the wake of the shooting — had drawn up a broader list of demands.
In the hours after the Thursday protest and leading up to a massive Friday demonstration in Hamden, Yale organizers arranged rideshares and formed teams for social media, research, events, outreach and strategy. The goal, Yearwood explained, was to tailor broader community calls for justice — about armed police forces and broad boundary lines, for example — to actionable, Yale-specific items.
Throughout the deliberation process, student organizers were in constant communication with their New Haven and Hamden counterparts, texting and calling to run ideas by those who were leading the effort. King remembers community leaders being “so responsive and so receptive,” welcoming students into a decades-old fold of local organizing.
“People felt like something was different about that moment,” King told the News in an interview. “It wasn’t just another protest … The moment itself allowed for so much interplay and connection … People were just really open and receptive to building relationships [and] coming together for something that was bigger than us.”
A brainstorming session in the Af-Am House E-Room, early Friday, April 19, 2019. (Courtesy of Richard Mbouombouo '21.)
Nia Berrian ’19 told the News in an April 14 email that she was focused on providing an outlet for student organizers to express the emotions that come along with a draining demonstration.
“Our intentions were not ultimately to form demands or do anything besides assist New Haven organizers whenever they needed,” she wrote. “However, it became increasingly clear that many of the underclassmen … wanted to do more but did not exactly know where to start.”
Seniors, she said, drew on connections with New Haveners and Yale alumni, as well as prior experiences of reading and writing demands, to convey to their peers that they could “really harness student power to demand drastic measures to protect the Black community on Yale’s campus and the [New Haven] and Hamden community.”
On April 20, BSDY delivered a letter to Salovey reiterating earlier calls for Pollock’s firing and body camera footage while adding two new calls for justice: the disarmament of the Yale Police Department and the restriction of the YPD’s patrol area to a reasonable definition of “campus.”
The YPD’s boundary lines quickly emerged as a focal point for Yale and community activists alike. The April 16 shooting occurred on the New Haven side of the New Haven-Hamden border, far from the edge of campus and outside of Hamden’s jurisdiction. While it is common for municipal police officers to venture across boundary lines, Cappiello, in recommending Eaton’s termination, rebuked the officer for “failure to notify a supervisor that he was entering another jurisdiction.”
Farmer noted that Hamden and New Haven officials had proposed a memorandum of understanding about when officers could cross into the neighboring city — but one year later, an MOU has not been drawn up. Elicker told the News that he intends to pursue an MOU but that the current pandemic has delayed those efforts.
As for Yale, the University police department’s legal reach matches that of New Haven’s municipal officers, Griffin noted in his report. According to scores of community activists, this makes the YPD one prong of a dangerous trifecta of law enforcement in the Elm City.
“We have a situation where we have a police department for the city of New Haven and we also have two additional police departments [Yale’s and Hamden’s] that can come in and police New Haven,” Ellington told the News in an interview last fall. “We call that a triple occupation.”
Since this time last year, the YPD’s jurisdiction has not changed. Higgins told the News that the YPD polices Yale’s campus, not the entire city of New Haven. YPD officers have never patrolled in Hamden, he added. Higgins noted that the YPD is not considering disarming, as officers need to be “fully prepared” to respond to campus emergencies.
For its part, Yale hired 21CP Solutions, an organization that partners with police departments to “tackle the challenges of policing in the 21st century” according to its website. 21CP would advise the University on how it can “improve police services,” Lindner wrote in a community email on Oct. 28. Jeannia Fu, an organizer with Justice for Jayson, dismissed this at the time as a University attempt to “create its own facts.”
In the wake of last April’s shooting, the YPD — which has an official police partnership with NHPD — also scaled up its community outreach in an attempt to improve its relationships with local residents.
Six days after issuing its initial letter, BSDY and a slew of other student organizations marched to YPD headquarters to hand-deliver over 1,000 civilian complaint campaigns, ranging from racial profiling incidents with other officers to direct demands about Pollock’s involvement in the shooting.
Over the course of that week, protests took an increasingly holistic approach to reform — calling for justice not only in the immediate case, but for minority Yale students, underserved New Haven residents and the Elm City more broadly.
Zoe Hopson '22 prepares for BSDY's deliverance march. (Courtesy of Seyade Tadele '21.)
In addition to demanding Pollock’s termination, speakers highlighted the University’s continued failure to deliver on promises to New Haven and to its students. They criticized a lack of faculty diversity; consistent underfunding of race, gender and ethnicity studies; and Yale’s alleged failure to meet its commitment to hire 1,000 New Haven residents from neighborhoods of need. They also chastised the University for a $12.5 million voluntary annual contribution to the Elm City that New Haveners say pales in comparison to Yale’s $30.3 billion endowment — a topic that comes up at MLK celebrations and city budget meetings alike.
University Spokesperson Karen Peart said that Yale’s financial contribution is the largest of any university to its host city and pointed to additional means of support that the University provides. Yale has recently hired 1,000 New Haven residents, she added, bringing the total to 4,000. FROM BDD TO BSDY
Amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, Yale’s annual Bulldog Days program has gone virtual — marking the second consecutive year that a crisis coincided with the admitted students event.
Last year, admitted members of the class of 2023 arrived on campus just one day before Hamden and Yale officers shot at Washington and Witherspoon. While they departed before mass demonstrations began in earnest, Dormus and Yearwood recall prospective first years sharing articles and social media posts from their respective corners of the world.
“I learned about the shooting when I was making the choice of whether or not to come to Yale,” Callie Benson-Williams ’23 told the News. “During Bulldog Days, I got to go to the [Af-Am] House and … seeing how strong and resilient the black community there was was definitely a help … This is a lesson of how important connection between community and Yale is, and having a supportive black community is.”
Black Men’s Union First Year Representative Ayanle Nur ’23 said that seeing community organizers and Yale students come together after he left Bulldog Days made him confident in his college decision. Zaporah Price ’23, a staff columnist for the News, remembers hearing about the shooting at Af-Am House events while on campus and sharing articles with her mom when she returned to Chicago. Upon arriving in New Haven, Price immediately got involved with Yale student activists — people who she said “stay in the background” and follow the lead of community organizers.
Tiya Proctor-Floyd ’23 told the News that she has always been looking to continue social justice work in college. BSDY organizers — rather than “being an activist for the sake of being an activist and being visible” — are genuinely dedicated to uplifting community voices, she said.
In September, Ellington and fellow People Against Police Brutality organizer Amelia Allen Sherwood came to an Af-Am House first-year and transfer student retreat to talk to newly arrived Yalies about activism and engagement in New Haven.
“It’s super important [for students] to understand that any work that they would do is standing on the shoulders of people who have been doing that work long before we were ever at Yale — and is going to be continued on long after we leave,” Eden Senay ’22, who organized the retreat as the membership coordinator for the Black Student Alliance at Yale, said in an interview with the News.
Ellington told the News that she went in order to introduce herself as someone who “really wanted to intentionally build community” between students and city residents and to get to know the students themselves.
First years led campus publicity efforts for the Shops at Yale protest following the state report release, according to Dormus and Benson-Williams, and they encouraged one another to show up to the event, Proctor-Floyd told the News. Proctor-Floyd saw the protest as an opportunity to stand in solidarity with community members.
“Yes, we are black students in America, and yes, we do fear police brutality and police violence to some degree on the merit of being black students,” she said. “[But] this is not something we’re doing for us because we fear for our lives. This is more us utilizing the privilege that we have as black Yale students to support community organizers and community activists.”
At the end of that protest, Ellington issued a call to Yale students: Just as community organizers had come to the University to fight for Pollock’s termination, students needed to show up in Hamden and support New Haven and Hamden residents as they shut down a police commission meeting two weeks later. Price remembers that meeting as the worst day of her Yale experience. It was “beautifully sad,” she said — beautiful for its solidarity and sad for its necessity. It was also a sobering reminder that Yale’s ivory towers do not change what it means to be black in America, she said. She recalled a heated confrontation between Dormus and a police commissioner:
“I did not feel like a Yale student,” Price said. “Ben wasn’t a Yale student in that moment. Ben was a black man who was in a fighting match with a man who did not see him for who he was, but for the color of his skin.”
Reflecting on the same moment, Nur said that his “blood was boiling” and he was inspired to take to the microphone himself. Several first years joined him with passionate speeches of their own, he said.
Sweet told the News that she has been ”blown away” by Yale students’ involvement — particularly that of first-year students who were not enrolled at the time of the shooting but have embraced the cause as their own.
Last April’s activism laid the groundwork for a continued united front. Starting within weeks of the shooting and continuing into recent months, mobilization has expanded beyond the incident that initially spurred collaboration between Yale and community organizers.
That newfound network became necessary within 12 hours of Yale closing its campus to undergraduates at the end of finals period. Ellington and several others were arrested at a Bridgeport rally and memorial for 15-year-old Jayson Negron, who was fatally shot by a Bridgeport police officer two years earlier.
Having exchanged phone numbers and social media information with community activists and their organizations, a groundswell of student support advocated for Ellington and others’ immediate release. Around two dozen students flooded police lines in a virtual phone bank, while others took to social media, Dormus told the News.
In January, BSDY activists and others joined 200 city residents on the steps of New Haven City Hall to protest the fatal shooting of New Haven teenager Mubarak Soulemane at the hands of a state trooper, during a high-speed car chase after Soulemane allegedly carjacked a ride-share driver in Norwalk.
The next month, Yalies again traveled to Hamden — this time, for reasons unrelated to the shooting that had taken scores of student activists to the neighboring town as recently as November.
In an incident that made national headlines, a Hamden teacher had cast a biracial girl and a black boy as slaves in a play designed to teach fifth graders about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. That teacher was placed on administrative leave about a week later and returned the following week, while the school district issued an apology.
But in the eyes of many residents, this incident was one in a series of abuses and failures on Hamden’s part to adequately address racism. Hamden Action Now called on community members to rally outside of and then attend a Feb. 3 Hamden Legislative Council meeting.
About 20 Yale students answered that call, according to King, and a combined 100 protesters packed the cavernous hall that Monday. Sweet drove some of them herself. Their demands included firing the principal of the school in question, hiring more minority teachers and creating a centralized reporting system, among other measures.
“We’ve had issues around race in Hamden for quite some time, nowhere different from anywhere else,” Farmer told the News. “It was humbling and beautiful to see students come out and support the work that people are trying to do to change their immediate community.”
Sweet noted that a core group of activists have been doing that work for years. But the group of people willing to “shoulder that weight” has grown in recent months. Hopson told the News that BSDY, as a result of sustained contact with local organizers, has been able to encourage students to attend events of which they otherwise may have been unaware.
Richardson said that she has maintained personal connections with organizers like Ellington and has learned more about the work of local organizations as a result. But she does not think that the aftermath of last April’s shooting has changed the Yale-New Haven relationship at large. Yale students’ turnout at the seven-hour protest was unlike anything she had seen in her time at the University, Richardson said, but those who remain heavily involved today are the same people who led student efforts at the time.
Yearwood and King — both of whom have worked closely with community organizers this year — described a shift since last April. Rather than two distinct groups converging in the same place at the same time, student and community activists are working as one body, they said.
They must continue to do so, King said — for Washington and Witherspoon, and for justice in New Haven and Connecticut at large.
Meera Shoaib contributed reporting.