NYTimes columnist Charles Blow writes today of getting a call on Saturday that his son, a Yale junior, had been held at gunpoint that evening after leaving the library. By the Yale Campus Police. Apparently they were responding to a burglary call on campus and determined that he fit the description of the alleged burglar. According to Blow, a campus cop followed his son, yelled at him to turn around, and pointed a gun at him while instructing him to hit the ground with his hands up. Even after his son identified himself as a Yale student and showed his Yale I.D., the policeman held him there until another officer arrived, and only then allowed him to leave after explaining that they were investigating a burglary in the area. You can read Blow’s column here.
Charles Blow explains that his complaint is not that his son was stopped, because he wants his son to be safe, and if that means getting stopped and asked to show I.D. on campus because you fit a description, so be it. But to be stopped and held at gunpoint, even before being asked for I.D.? As Blow wondered, “What if my son had panicked under the stress, having never had a gun pointed at him before, and made what the officer considered a ‘suspicious’ movement?…Triggers cannot be unpulled. Bullets cannot be called back.”
Worry is no stranger to the parent of any young man in college. On any given day we can wonder if they are studying enough, feeling good about themselves and their school, partying too hard, practicing safe sex, knowing that “no” means “no”, staying safe from harm. And parents of young black men in college already have the extra worry about their sons encountering any rogue local cop, whose limited (or too frequent) encounters with young black men may color the interaction. But hearing that a campus police officer, whose charge is to protect college students, points his gun at an unarmed black male student first and asks questions later elevates our worry levels considerably.
What is a parent to do? GCP has covered police stops in earlier posts (e.g.,”Tell Your Sons and Daughters What to Do if You are Stopped By the Police”, found here). Talk with your son about the tips in that post. Also have a specific talk with your son about what to do if he is ever held at gunpoint by anyone, which is simply: do whatever the person holding the gun says. If it is a mugger, give up that wallet. If it is a police officer, follow his instructions and answer his questions as simply and calmly as humanly possible. No sudden moves.
Charles Blow has the power of the pen (and the distribution of the NY Times) to help make sure that the Yale Campus Police train their officers more carefully, and we can hope that other college campuses will be sent his column and will get the message. Let’s hope this makes a difference. In the meantime, have a talk with your son as soon as possible. If he protests that he’s “got this” and doesn’t need the talk, tell him that the talk is really not for him, it’s for you, because you worry. And insist on having it again.