Four Yale University police officers were called to a graduate student dorm in downtown New Haven on Monday after one resident deemed another’s nap a situation worthy of dialing 911.
Lolade Siyonbola, the sleep offender, captured her uncomfortable ensuing interactions with the officers on video. Officers struggle to verify her Yale identification card, reportedly because their own security list misspelled the first-year African Studies graduate student’s name. She repeatedly points out that officers have seen her use her keys to unlock her dorm room, and tells them she feels harassed by their ongoing scrutiny of her right to be in the building where she pays to live.
The woman who rousted her from a nap and then called the cops had previously called police on a friend of hers, Siyonbola tells the officers, “because he was in the stairwell and he was black.”
A shorter separate video also posted by Siyonbola shows the white woman stepping out of her own apartment to tell her dorm-mate that “I have every right to call the police” because “you cannot sleep in that room.” Siyonbola had been working on a paper in the common room upstairs when she stopped to take a nap, and was woken up to the woman rousting her and calling police.
Siyonbola never raises her voice but is relentless in reminding officers that they’re currently detaining her inside the building where she lives on the word of someone “unstable” who has a history of making nuisance emergency calls over black people being where she doesn’t think they ought to be. The firm frustration in her voice eventually prompts a supervisor to anger.
“This is private property, and we are police officers here, so we are allowed to do our job,” the supervisor tells her. “We determine who’s allowed to be here and who’s not allowed to be here, regardless of whether you feel that you are allowed to be here or not. OK?”
A few minutes later, the officers return her ID and depart, but not before the supervisor gives Siyonbola another piece of his mind. “Every time you have an interaction with a police officer doesn’t mean that there’s harassment. We don’t know what happened, and we’re trying to get to the bottom of it, alright?” he said. “You have a good night, ma’am.”
Emergency personnel get put in situations far more stressful than this one on a regular basis by people casually misusing 911 in a wide range of ways.
There’s the bizarre and deadly internet vendetta-settling tactic of “swatting,” where someone makes a false report of a dangerous situation so that armed officers will descend on the home of someone they’re mad at online. There’s the twitchy panic that drives someone to call police over a black man holding a toy gun in the toy gun aisle at Walmart, or a black kid holding a toy gun in a park. And there’s the almost frivolous, quotidian race-panic that drives a whole range of white people — from a woman in Yale campus housing to a Starbucks employee in Philadelphia to a neighbor of an Airbnb host in California — to call the cops when they see black bodies where they somehow aren’t supposed to be.
The campus police response in Siyonbola’s case is obviously distinct from the California house-renting story or the Philly coffee shop shakedown. In each of those cases, cops showed a rough-n-ready attitude immediately on arrival, cuffing the two black men who’d dared be present in a Starbucks and putting a whole street on tactical lockdown over a trio of black women loading their luggage into a car on a suburban street. Nobody ever raises a hand or even reaches a shouting volume of speech in the Yale video.
But the video also shows how determined police officers can be to extract compliance, passivity, and respect from anyone they’re interacting with. The deep resentment Siyonbola expresses toward the officers is mostly greeted with quiet and patience, until the supervisor arrives. He takes almost immediate issue with the woman’s characterization of his officers’ behavior and asserts his authority over her, the building, and the situation.
For its part, the Yale administration offered affirmations for Siyonbola’s anger without echoing her criticisms of the officers. ““Incidents like that of last night remind us of the continued work needed to make Yale a truly inclusive place,” Dean Lynn Cooley said in an email to students across the school’s graduate degree programs on Tuesday. “An essential part of that effort must be a commitment to mutual respect and an open dialog.”
The email made no mention of how the school might respond to a dorm resident who lodges repeat frivolous emergency calls over the presence of people of color in her building.