What is your emergency?

In the wake of a campus incident, a law professor discusses racial bias, police behavior, and the impact of social media.

The interview was conducted by Kathrin Day Lassila ’81 and Peggy Edersheim Kalb ’86, editors at the Yale Alumni Magazine, with the assistance of intern John Cooper ’21.

Michael Marsland

Michael Marsland

A student in the Hall of Graduate Studies called police about a woman sleeping in a common room. Caught on video, the incident became part of a national conversation about racial bias. View full image

On May 8, a white student living in the Hall of Graduate Studies called the Yale police to report that there was a woman (who was black) whom she didn’t know, sleeping in a common room on her floor. The woman who had been sleeping, another graduate student who lived on a different floor, posted video of the incident, and it was widely shared and discussed in the media. We asked Paul Butler ’82, the Albert Brick Professor in Law at Georgetown University, to talk to us about structural issues and obstacles in law and society, and the roots of racism. Butler is a former federal prosecutor who works in the areas of criminal and race relations law. He is the author of the book Chokehold: Policing Black Men (New Press, 2017).


Yale Alumni Magazine: The number of times that police have been called on black people because someone thought they were suspicious, even though the circumstances weren’t suspicious at all, has gotten a lot of attention recently. But how long had it been going on in actuality before it started hitting the media?

Paul Butler: These cases are based on people being anxious or afraid around African Americans. And that fear of black people dates from around the time of abolition. Before abolition, there were certainly stereotypes about black people, but not that they were dangerous or prone to criminality. Because if you think about it, if you lived in close proximity with black folks, like slave owners did, you would be extremely concerned if you thought that they were likely to rob or steal or rape.

So the stereotype about blacks then was that they were docile or less intelligent—but not that they were dangerous. It was only after the Civil War, when African Americans started demanding civil rights, that this new narrative rose up: that blacks are more threatening than other groups, more likely to break the law. And at the same time, you also have the establishment of formal police departments. Prior to the Civil War, there weren’t very many professional police departments. Local crime control or law enforcement was sporadic, and it was often handled by civilians who were deputized—or people took matters into their own hands.

So after the Civil War, we have both new myths of black dangerousness and the establishment of professional police forces, especially in urban areas. And so it creates a perfect storm for people who have these stereotypical prejudices against black people. They now have a state apparatus to respond to them. 

What we’ve seen is that as people now rely on the police and the criminal legal process to resolve issues, the police get called more frequently. Not necessarily in response to a specific crime, but in response to feeling unsafe or threatened around an African American. The official remedy may not be an arrest or a formal law enforcement action. But having the police show up is almost a punishment in itself.

That’s a long way of saying I don’t think that this is new at all. I think African Americans have encountered these kinds of situations since emancipation. What’s new is the media attention that it’s getting. Many of these situations are caught on video—at least parts of them—and this makes it much more dramatic.

You know, a lot of people think police just wouldn’t do stuff like that. And the videos of the police shootings show everyone that the police in fact do do things like that.

So videos on cellphones are one of the reasons why we’re thinking about these incidents more often. The other reason is social media—especially because the people in the movement for black lives are using social media as an organizing tool. As soon as one of these events happens, it gets put on Twitter and Snapchat and Facebook. Black Twitter is an extremely powerful force.

Y: What do you think the effect will be, long-term, of the publicization of these incidents and the spread of knowledge of them on social media? Will there be an amelioration? 

B: I hope so. You know, when we see these instances of police brutality that have been caught on tape, often people say, “How could the police do that? Even if they want to, don’t they realize that they’re being videotaped?” I have no doubt that the widespread media attention and, again, the ubiquity of cellphone videos, act as a deterrent to the police, and act as a deterrent to other people who would otherwise engage in overt forms of discrimination. Nobody wants to be on Facebook or Twitter looking like a racist.

Y: What would you advise for improving the situation?

B: I don’t think that bias is hardwired. I don’t think that we are born with it. But it’s still difficult to erode. It’s so much a part of our culture that, while it’s possible to unlearn, it’s very difficult to unlearn.

So I think it’s more important to consider the ways that we respond when we have these kinds of biases—and, as a society, come up with better responses. Whenever I’ve called 911, the first question that’s asked is: “What is your emergency?” In New York, that’s asked a lot—because there’s a 311 number for non-emergencies, and they want to make sure that 911 is reserved for problems that are life-threatening or property-threatening.

And I wonder, if the Yale police dispatcher had asked, “What is your emergency?” what would that student have said? That there’s a person sleeping in the common room? I mean, come on. “There are two guys sitting down at a table at Starbucks.” “There are four women who are playing golf too slowly.”

What we’ve seen is that a lot of times when people call the police, on anybody, they need an intervention—but often the best person to respond is not somebody with a gun and baton and the power to arrest.

Y: How much do you think bias on the part of police officers is a factor?

B: I don’t think that police officers themselves have any more racial hang-ups than, for instance, law professors or Yale students. There is something that happens when you do the work. In some places, there’s a culture that develops, a culture that President Obama described as a warrior mentality. You do start to get this feeling, as a cop. And so what President Obama recommended was that, rather than think of themselves as warriors, police officers should think of themselves as guardians.

In all these situations in which police officers kill unarmed black people, they are very rarely punished. And they’re rarely punished because the law gives them lots of power to do what they’re doing. In some instances—as sad as it is to say—when they shoot and kill unarmed people, in the eyes of the law they didn’t do anything wrong. And that’s why I think we have to think more about structure, more about laws themselves.

It’s certainly important to have officers who look like the community. I think that that’s a necessary condition—but it’s not a sufficient condition. One of the revelations of my book Chokehold is that unarmed black men are actually most likely to be shot by a Hispanic officer, and second most likely by an African American officer. White officers are actually least likely to shoot an unarmed black man. We have the data.

We don’t know exactly why that is. I should also point out that, because there are a lot more white police officers than there are black or Latino police officers, most black men who get shot are still shot by a white police officer. But if you look at the race of the shooter and the race of the victim, a lot of black men are safer around white officers.

All that is to say that diversity is certainly important in terms of the legitimacy of our institutions, but diversity by itself isn’t going to solve the larger problems that are entrenched in bias.

Y: How frequent are these incidents? Are they the exception or the rule?

B: These situations are somewhere between the exception and the rule. They’re not rare enough that they can be called exceptions. But I think the civil rights movement has done a good job of stigmatizing discrimination, even if it hasn’t brought an end to the effects of discrimination. People of good will now understand that discrimination and prejudice are a bad thing.  

1 comment

  • Richard Hall
    Richard Hall, 1:59pm July 26 2018 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Was it the campus police who responded to this incident in the dorm? Is it possible that some Yale students still don't know the campus police are real cops, but see then more like social workers? No, huh? Either way, it's not good for Yale that a student can't just say "I don't know you; where do you live?" and go back to bed when she gets the answer.

The comment period has expired.