Q&A: Rick Levin

After a murder, reviewing security

An interview with Yale president Richard C. Levin ’74PhD

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

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Y: It was a terrible September. There was the ex-employee with a gun in the parking lot near Yale's human resources offices. A graduate student went missing and was found murdered, and a Yale staff member was charged. And a psychiatry resident was charged with having a cache of illegal weapons. [See “The Death of Annie Le” and “Psych Resident Arrested With ‘Arsenal.’”]

L: It was deeply disturbing. Unprecedented in my time at Yale. We were fortunate in the case of the potential gunman. We had an extremely effective response, thanks to another employee who saw this man and called on one of the blue phones [emergency outdoor phones placed throughout campus]. Within 60 seconds the Yale police were on the scene to arrest the man, and possibly avert something tragic. It was a horrifying episode—but as soon as we knew about it, we knew it was over.

The tragic death of Annie Le unfolded over a nine-day period and was much more profoundly disturbing: family members and friends deeply distressed, lives devastated. And many employees and graduate students understandably were shaken by the event.

Even the arrest was deeply unsettling, because it was an arrest of an employee that no one in the workplace would have ever imagined capable of such a deed. People who work there were very rattled—if this can happen to a person who works side by side with me every day, am I threatened? This event didn't really have anything to do with security on the campus, the safety of the city, or the safety of that particular workplace. It says more about the human soul and its capacity for doing evil than it does about security and safety.

Y: You have said there was nothing in his record to suggest he could do this. Did you have psychological experts look at the record?

L: No. There is simply nothing in his employment record that would suggest a potential for violence.

Y: In your e-mail to the campus, you said this kind of crime can't necessarily be prevented by security measures.

L: This was a very secure facility. It had key card access to all of the labs; it required card access to the entire basement. It had video cameras at every entrance and exit.

Y: What would it take to prevent something like this? Video cameras in every room?

L: Would that have done it? I don't know. If the suspect was the murderer, he knew how the building operated—he knew that his identity would be revealed by the record of access to the laboratory that she was in. It's not clear that a camera would have deterred him.

Y: You also said in your e-mail that people on campus have raised security issues. Do you think there are gaps?

L: We could always do more, but we have made huge investments in security in that building and all over campus. Our annual budget for police and security is $27 million, and we have a police department of 86 individuals and a security force of about 120. However, there is no question that Annie’s death brought to the surface anxieties about security in various parts of the campus, in particular the medical school. And so we are undertaking a review in response to our employees’ and students’ concerns. We have asked everyone for their suggestions. I am sure we will find ways for some further improvements.

Y: One area you’re looking at is training for supervisors regarding what might lead to violence—what triggers should lead an employee or a supervisor to report to HR. Yale doesn’t have that now.

L: This kind of material will most likely be incorporated into our general management training programs. We have been ramping up internal training of our employees, to give our professional managers tools to be more effective, and we will add new material on signals that might raise concerns about a person’s propensity to violent behavior.

Y: What about background checks? The murder suspect had no past convictions. But the psych resident, according to the police, had misdemeanor firearms convictions in California. Do residents get background checks?

L: We do background checks on all new staff who are regular employees. In every department but psychiatry, the residents are hired by Yale–New Haven Hospital. The Yale psychiatry department employs the psychiatric residents. And that group of residents is not among those for whom we do background checks. We will rectify that.

Y: Do the residents hired by Yale–New Haven Hospital go through background checks?

L: Not at present. But applicants for residencies at Yale–New Haven Hospital have to report whether they have had any criminal convictions (other than minor traffic offenses).

Y: What about students and postdocs?

L: We don’t do background checks on students. We have rigorous admission processes, and we're very sensitive to hints of serious character problems when we review candidates. As for postdocs, background checks are not currently done, but we are seriously considering them in the future.

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