Following Up

This is an email that was sent to the Wesleyan community this morning.

I have now reviewed police and public safety accounts and dozens of student eyewitness reports of what occurred when Middletown police, supported by other local and state law enforcement, broke up a student gathering in the early morning hours of Friday, May 16. Although it is clear that a few students acted recklessly, and perhaps illegally, and while it is also clear that some students decided to remain in the area despite warnings to disperse, I am seriously concerned about what seems to me to be the disproportionate use of force in this incident. I have communicated my concern to Middletown’s Chief of Police. She has assured me that there will be a thorough investigation, and I will be following up with her and with Middletown’s Internal Affairs Officers to investigate the matter fully.

Students that night on Fountain Ave. were celebrating the end of the semester when they were ordered by Wesleyan Public Safety, and then the Middletown Police, to clear the street. From the evidence I have seen, there was no “riot,” as has been reported, nor was there any obvious public danger. However, it is clear that many students ignored requests to clear the street, and there are very disturbing reports of bottles or other projectiles thrown in the direction of police or their vehicles. We take this very seriously, and any students found in violation of the law or of Wesleyan rules will be held accountable for their actions.

It is apparent that some students decided to ignore the officers’ orders, but it is also clear that many, if not most, never heard the police demand that they leave the area. In any case, I am deeply troubled by what seems to have been an indiscriminate use of pepper spray and dogs to clear an area where students were peacefully gathered. Reports of unprofessional and violent behavior by some police officers are alarming. Again, I will be working with appropriate authorities to address these matters.

We are examining the policies and operations of Wesleyan’s Public Safety Department, and its relation to the Middletown Police Department. We value our positive relationship with Middletown and with the MPD, and we are grateful for the assistance the department provides our community on a regular basis. But let me be clear: we will not tolerate abusive behavior by the police any more than we will tolerate it by our own students.

I deeply regret that these events took place at what should have been a joyous end to the semester. Our goal will be to ensure that these kinds of incidents do not occur in the future, and I have already begun working with Middletown and campus leaders to address our mutual concerns and interests.

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25 thoughts on “Following Up

  1. President Roth said: “But let me be clear: we will not tolerate abusive behavior by the police any more than we will tolerate it by our own students.”

    Thanks, President Roth. This says it all.

    EH: Parent, 2012

  2. president roth.

    as i read the unfolding saga from my home, i just wanted to let you know how appreciative i am of your active role in this all. it is clear that you really want to be there for us, the student body!

    i hope that next year these ideas will continue, and we as a senior class can work with psafe to come up with policies regarding parties and enforcement that would not lead to the calling of police! (i’m still unclear about what actually was wrong with the party initially. underage drinking, maybe; standing in the street; it could hardly be a noise complaint, as it was surrounded by student housing; is it so illegal to be in a big crowd of people?)
    ag ’09

  3. This is a much better statement than I expected, frankly. I’m glad to see President Roth unequivocally stating that excessive force was used and that this was not just or right. Thanks.

  4. Thank you, Michael Roth, for the exemplary way you are dealing with this complex and difficult issue.
    DT Parent, 2011

  5. President Roth, I deeply appreciate your thoughtful and timely response to this issue.

  6. Your handling of last Friday’s unfortunate encounter between Wes students and the MPD and others has been outstanding in every way. President Roth, you have clearly demonstrated an ability for firm and judicious leadership. Bravo!

  7. We have two problems, in my opinion, and President Roth addressed them albiet indirectly.
    1. Police forces that feel empowered by a national atmosphere of fear,to act against the public, and
    2. College students, empowered by sensationalist media portrayals in “reality shows” who are willing to act publicly in manners that violate decency.

    If these two trends continue unaddressed, we will continue to see gratuitous campus violence events across the country like this.

  8. President Roth: No doubt you wish you did not have to face this particular challenge, and certainly so soon after becoming President, but I think you are handling this unfortunately situation in just the right way. The message that went out this morning to parents and others was very well done.

    DB (parent ’08)

  9. Thanks for the follow up–I know this has been a diffucult week for everyone involved. As this whole story was unfolding, it struck me that this whole mess could have been avoided had campus security checked with you before calling the Middletown police. While I understand that Wesleyan needs and appreciates the presense of the police especially when there are incidents of crime, in this situation if campus police were unable to disperse the students, I do not feel that they should be given the authority to involve the police without first clearing it with you or Dean Cuillton. I realize that this puts an undue burden on your shoulders, but I also realize that if you had been made aware of the situation before the police had been called and had confronted the students directly they would have dispersed promptly. What that says about students and their distrust and disrespect for the police is not good, but I’m afraid that is the way it is. Lots of opportunity for a teaching moment in all of this, especially for campus security and for unruly students. But there was absolutely no excuse for the excessive use of force by the police! Not sure how to bring about change in that area. I was also very sad to read the many, many blog postings in the Hartford Current website from Middletown residents who feel great resentment towards Wesleyan students. Wesleyan will need to focus a great deal more energy on building community relations in order to change those attitudes.

  10. This has been a tough one to figure. I grew up in Middletown and graduated from Wesleyan in 1973; my wife graduated in ’72, my brother in ’75, and my daughter in ’03. I reside now in Massachusetts but spend three or four months in town every year. My nephew, for whom I have a great deal of respect, is a Middletown police officer who’s been called to campus often; in fact, he and other officers are called to campus far, far more often than is commonly known–occasionally at the request of the University in anticipation of big events (such as Spring Fling), much more regularly, at the request of Public Safety, to deal with on-campus crimes ranging from felony assault to petty theft. (Spring Fling, as you might imagine, would yield an arrest log a mile long were officers to act on every incident of, say, possession and use of illegal narcotics; they don’t, understanding far more of the milieu of the place than Wesleyan students commonly give them credit for.)

    So what’s going on when we have an episode such as that recently on Fountain Ave? This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, of course, but it seems to be the first time we have a President who’s actually taking a stab at figuring his way through the dynamics of the event; he’s to be applauded. I don’t know the material he and the Police Chief have reviewed, but I take him at his word that he’s confident of his conclusions (I don’t know if he’s right or not, just that he’s principled; we each hear stories differently, and this might be a case in which the story’s a trifle more or less involved than his–or my–words seem to indicate). The thing I’m most waiting to see–the aftermath of the skirmish the other night, for all it’s drama, will play itself out one way or another, and probably, given that some activity was actionable, will probably play itself out under protocols of confidentiality–the thing I’m waiting to see is how we come to view our own Public Safety officers.

    My understanding is that UConn and Yale, for instance, require their safety and security staff to attend formal Police Academy sessions; I don’t know if we do. I don’t know what Wesleyan PS can or can’t do on a routine basis (I do know–we all do–that they can freely call the Middletown police whenever they feel they need some help, after which–and this seems to be a common element in the student-party annals–they tend to disappear from the story). I don’t know to what extent the police, having answered a call, can involve PS (I’m guessing there are liability questions that might come into play), but I can’t see any reason why the two groups can’t work in tandem (again, this would take some training, probably more–much more–on our end than at the Police Station). Were students properly educated regarding PS practices and presence (as perhaps they are–I don’t know what the University does in this regard, nor do I know how seriously our students regard PS–not enough, to judge by the events at hand), we might avoid some of the more unfortunate occurrences we’ve seen in the past half dozen years. I doubt the Middletown police await with eagerness our Wesleyan year-end exuberance; as a matter of fact, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the Middletown police don’t much care about getting up and after PS-styled renegade student party-goers (they’ve got far more on their plate than our little disturbances), but if they field a call, they have to come. (The reason the dog shows up–I take it this has become a marker-of-choice in categorizing student-police encounters–is that the dog always travels at night with its night-shift officer; how the dog is employed is another matter). This is, of course, serious business–no one wants injuries, arrests, the charged atmosphere that generates them or that results from them. We in the extended Wesleyan family surely don’t, we Middletown residents don’t, those on campus don’t, and–I take my nephew at his word just as I take Mr. Roth at his–the police surely don’t.

  11. I have just read your followup message and I want to second everything said by commenter #8 AWK.
    I in no way want to diminish the concern about the behavior of town and state police; but we all know from past experience throughout the country, that once the step is taken to call in outside law enforcement, the risk of things getting out of hand is very high.
    The issue of first concern to me is why Wesleyan Public Safety Department decided to call in town and state police at all. From everything I have heard and read, I see nothing to indicate a reasonable provocation for calling in town police. You stated in your comments today that you will be reviewing Public Safety’s policies and procedures. What procedures are currently in place? Were they followed? Do they really need to be changed or were they not followed Thursday evening? I respectfully request that this aspect of the incident be addressed immediately and that the answers to these questions be shared with the larger Wesleyan community expeditiously. As a parent, I want to know that we and our children feel they can trust the campus security personnel and know what responsibility campus security has in situations such as this. I would think that campus security personnel also want clarity as to their responsibilities. In addition, they need to know that students, administration and parents are all aware of the parameters of their job in such circumstances.
    In summary, while it is important to follow up with town police regarding the decisions they made, much of that is out of the control of the University. What is in the University’s control is the policies and behavior of campus security. That can and should be addressed immediately and shared with the campus community.
    Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your message.

  12. Thank you, President Roth. I think you handled this entire situation better than I could have imagined. Thanks for taking into account first person-accounts, and not bowing to pressure from any side, but instead coming to your own conclusions, thoughtfully and intelligently. I also think AWK is right on about what we need to take out of this: the realization that the relationship between Wesleyan and the greater Middletown community is not perfect right now, but something we should strive to fix. How can we make Wesleyan students more involved with their community, and vice versa? Things like the Green Street Arts Center are a great start, but as this incident has (I think) taught us, we need to keep brainstorming.

  13. Unfortunately though, president Roth cannot get out of bed every time students are partying on fountain ave.

  14. thanks, president roth, for addressing this situation reasonably, promptly and in an open manner. the violence alarmed many of us no longer on campus. while evidently this violence was not entirely unprovoked (privileged college near-grads ought to know better than to be throwing stuff at anyone), i suspect the celebratory college students were not unprovoked by the police presence as well. ultimately, such violence is unacceptable, an understanding which you clearly convey through your response.

  15. Dear President Roth :
    although I am happy about the blog entries pertaining to this matter, I am really surprised that nowhere ELSE on the OFFICIAL site of the University (not the musings of its president) there is mention of the incident and its aftermath. Surely, this is an item for the online news or official communications on the main site ? if not , why not ? why do you have to hide that the Hartford Courant has not already disclosed ? Thank you

  16. Mr. Roth,
    Thanks for the update, and I think you are right on
    the money. My son told me that he was in
    the area but left just before the police arrived. His
    description of what happened, constructed from
    conversations he had with other students who stayed on
    Fountain Street, made it all sound like a tempest in a
    teapot, until he got to the part about the mace and
    the dogs. What are these guys thinking? Unfortunately
    I think I know the answer, which has something to do
    with class resentments and all that silly stuff that
    makes the world not go round enough of the time.
    My Dad was president of Yale in the 1950s and the same
    kind of town/gown tensions existed back then, and
    probably have since time immemorial.
    Anyhow, I think your letter was right on the money.
    Stick up for your students in general, hold those who
    acted inappropriately accountable, and demand an
    explanation about the apparent over-reaction from the
    Middletown Police.
    Nice going, and thanks for keeping us in the loop.
    Whit Griswold, parent ’08

  17. This happened at Wes during my senior year and from what I have been hearing about this year’s incident, President Roth you reaffirmed why you were the right candidate to be Wesleyan’s President.

  18. This is a very difficult situation for President Roth, and he seems to be doing a reasonable job managing it.

    But based on President Roth’s statement here and comments on places like wesleying, it seems like most of the Wesleyan community’s attention is on whether or not police used excessive force.

    Shouldn’t the first response be one of contrition? Shouldnt Roth and Wesleyan at large be embarrassed that local (and state!) police had to be called in for any reason? And its not like this was some noble political protest – this was simply an out of control party.

    In my years at wesleyan students were generally lousy Middletown citizens. It must be miserable for non-university residents living near campus.

    No doubt some unfortunate state trooper, middletown police officer, or even a wesleyan public service officer will be raked over the coals for this. They might even lose their jobs.

    How many Wesleyan students or administrators will the University hold to account? Any student throwing a bottle or can at a police officer, just because their party is being interrupted, should be expelled. I doubt that will happen.

    President Roth, you’ve written your email to the Wesleyan student body. Where’s the statement (apology) to the Middletown (and Connecticut) taxpayers?

  19. President Roth,

    As a graduate of Wesleyan’s class of ’98 who chose a career in law enforcement, I am embarrassed by the stance you have taken in your follow up blog. It is quite clear that you have given in to the pressure of trying to please students, parents, and generous Alums. I think Chris ’95 (post 19) is dead on in questioning why you haven’t issued an apology to the Middletown Police Department and Middletown taxpayers.

    Mr. Roth, you claim you are “seriously concerned about what seems to (you) to be a disproportionate use of force and indiscriminate use of pepper spray and dogs to clear an area where students were peacefully gathered”, but yet you contradict yourself in nearly every sentence. You state that from the evidence (student statements) you have seen that there was no riot or obvious public danger”, but in the previous paragraph you admit a few (I would guess probably more) acted recklessly, perhaps illegally, and refused to disperse”. You even follow up by saying bottles and other projectiles were thrown in the direction of officers and their vehicles. Are those actions alone not a danger to others??? Can you honestly say they are not? How is 200 hundred students (some drunk) refusing to obey public safety and police orders, while throwing objects, at 2a.m., a peaceful gathering?

    How can you possibly question why public safety officers would call Middletown police officers for assistance. Public safety officers told them to leave, they did not. How long should they have waited to ask for help, one hour, two hours, or more? Middletown Police also told the students to leave, they did not. How long should Middletown officers have waited to ask for help? Should they have just kept asking nicely with hope that after several hours of being ignored the students might leave. 4 police agencies arrived on scene, and still they did not leave. They did not just show up and start spraying people and releasing the dogs. This all occurred over an extended period of time. Everyone wants to blame the officers. Why is no blame being placed on the students? Its very simple, if they listened when they were told by public safety to leave, none of this would have happened.

    Mr.. Roth, your blog almost sounds like that of a bad parent with the “not my kid” mentality. Do you seriously believe that most students never heard the police demand that they leave?! Did the students think that cruisers from 4 agencies arrived on scene with all their blue lights on to say hello? Is it possible they did not hear because most were intoxicated, yelling, clapping, or throwing firecrackers. It doesn’t take a Wesleyan degree to understand that when police, again from 4 agencies, arrive on scene with all their blue lights on (after public safety already said to leave), that its probably time to go. If the students of Wesleyan University can’t understand that, then you should probably make integrating a mandatory COMMON SENSE course into the curriculum your top priority.

    I quickly scanned your biography on the Wesleyan website Mr. Roth. Its clear you have had a prestigious career as an author and educator. I’m sure you possess more knowledge than I could ever hope to. But with all due respect, your complete lack of experience and understanding of the fundamental principles of law enforcement is obvious in your blog. It is your job to control the students and prevent these situations from occurring in the first place. It is NOT your job to decide what a proportionate use of force for police officers to use is. Like you in your career, these officers have years of training and experience. They base their decisions on general laws, case law, and departmental policies. Wesleyan is not a sovereign nation located in Middletown. Wesleyan is part of Middletown. Foutain Ave is a public way and the Middletown Police Department maintains primary jurisdiction on that roadway. The Middletown Police Department does not need Wesleyan’s permission to respond. I will say, its possible that some officers were out of line. Like you, I wasn’t there. Its not my job to say though. Its up to the Chief and Mayor to judge their officers. Its up to you to judge the students that failed to follow instructions.

    In response to Mr. Griswold (post 16), it is attitudes such as yours that widen the divide between the Wesleyan Community and the Middletown Community. You base your commentary on your son’s statement, your son that left the party. So you heard from your son, who heard from his friends, and you ask “Whats wrong with these guys”. With your wealth of knowledge, you even manage to draw the conclusion that its due to “class resentments”. This isn’t your Dad at Yale, and its not the 1950’s. You were not there last week. You have no idea what happened or why. Its always a good idea to participate in dialogue and I truly believe its necessary to get to the root of the problem, but to toss ideas out from left field is utterly ridiculous.

    If parents want to feel that their kids are safe at Wesleyan. If they want to know that something like this would never happen again. Then tell your kids to grow up, and listen when public safety, police, and faculty tell them to do something. At the very least, teach them to accept the consequences when they don’t.

  20. I wonder what the University’s reaction would be if this had happened at the DKE house… Would they still cry excessive force, or would it be suddenly justified?

  21. I think Chris ’95 makes a couple of flawed assumptions. First of all, the fact that state police were called in does not mean that they “had to be called in.” As someone who was present, and sober, at the confrontation I don’t believe that state police needed to be present at all, and the fact that 10 cruisers were present at the event should be a subject of embarrassment to the police, not to the school, and I think the police themselves should ask some hard questions about how they are spending taxpayer money.

    Second, characterizing the event as an “out of control party” is false. Two separate house parties (which were in control, and allowed by public safety to continue, if restricted in size) were broken up, and people gathered in the street. I myself was present there to say goodbye to friends before I left the following day. The group gathered in the street were neither “out of control” or a party. It was a bunch of students, some drunk some not saying goodbye and socializing outside. Traffic was indeed blocked, but on a street populated only by seniors at the university.

    As for the throwing of a bottle, that is needless to say inexcusable, criminal and dangerous. However, the police themselves seem hesitant to say that it happened more than once. As someone who has always been respectful of the police, I find it odd that I should be held responsible for such an action, by merit of attending the same college as the thrower. It’s uncertain if it is known who threw the bottle, and if they were one of the students arrested, but if they are they should undoubtedly be prosecuted.

    Your assumption that a police officer will be “raked over the coals” is also a little bit naive. While Wesleyan students and parents do exert a great deal of power, police departments have a remarkable degree of control over internal discipline. Recent events in New York City should prove how resilient police officers can be to charges of misconduct.

    Finally, as to your comments on relationships between Wesleyan and Middletown, you are sadly correct. The relationship between the two is poor, and there is a great deal of resentment in the Middletown community towards the university. The responsibility for repairing this relationship lies on the shoulders of the Wesleyan community. However, the profession of police officer is one in which discretion and self-control are paramount. If police officers were acting on a grudge, no matter how deserved, there is no excuse for their motivations. As a witness to the incident, I saw police officers enter a peaceful situation where no lives were in danger and create one in which two students had to be carried by ambulance to the hospital. While I respect that the police were enforcing the law, and maybe even acting within defined procedures, it seems like they made some very strange decisions for public servants charged with the protection of the public.

  22. To graduating WeSeniors:

    The outside world will be very different from Wesleyan.

    There may be times in your life where it is noble or sensible to disobey armed police. But understand that if youre in the vicinity of some person or people throwing one or more beer bottles at the police you are in serious, possibly mortal danger.

    It doesnt sound like there was anything noble or sensible about hanging out on Fountain after police asked you to leave. You put yourself in danger for no reason.

    No one was seriously injured, and thank goodness for that. But there was real damage done. The Middletown Police (and State Troopers) will remember being subjected to unprovoked violence by Wesleyan students. There may be serious questions about how the police responded (pepper spray and dogs does sound inappropriate), but they will remember what preceded it. Wesleyan will be tainted by this for many years, and future police actions on campus may be informed, unfortunately, by this incident.

    Maybe just a few Wesleyan students got out of hand, but the crowd effectively stood with them. Anyone who was pepper-sprayed was hanging out in a crowd that had been asked to disperse for over an hour, a crowd that was emitting random acts of violence against the police.

    Hats off to the Middletown Police Department for dispersing a violent mob without any serious injuries.

    There may be many appropriate responses from President Roth. A first should be apologizing to the officers who were needlessly attacked and reimbursing city and state tax payers for wasting valuable police time.

  23. Just returned from a great reunion weekend. As I usually do when I return to Wes, I look at the Argus to see what is going on. It was interesting to read about the Zonker Harris Day issue. Also, listened to the class president talk about various inter student hate incidents in her speech. I had heard and wanted to find out more information about the Fountain Av incident. How are these connected? The world (and Wes) really are different places than than when I graduated 30 years ago. Students, especially seniors, need to understand that they should not be binge drinking as a way of saying goodby. Getting stoned is illegal. As a lawyer, I have seen too many young people ruin a lifetime of opportunities for themselves by making a bad choice that lasted just a couple of minutes. Wesleyan walks a very fine line when security or RA’s ignore blatent drug use. The parent of a dead/ injured drunk/stoned child will not chalk it up to protecting the integrity of a liberal campus. A liberal arts education is not synonymous with irresponsible choices.
    I have no doubt that there was some police over reaction maybe even abuse. BUT, the students need to take some responsibility for what happened that night and for any problems between the college and the town. Wes is supposed to be about growth. By the time senior year is over, it is time to grow up.

    So, some solutions. There should be some “safe place” for students to hang out/party. Maybe an Andrus field mosh pit. Or maybe coordinating a block pary with Security/ MPD to avoid the situation. Get creative, think outside the box. The Middletown/MPD/ Wesleyan tension is as old as the school. BTW, I have a student at another small liberal arts school. Let me tell you, Wes is not special with respect the the external and internal issues. Unfortunately, there are very smart intolerant people. The community has to take responsibility for each other. Had this party taken place while I was a student, I am sure I would have been there. I probably would have been drinking. I may have said something stupid to a police officer. I would have been wrong.

    The university is very privileged to have Michael Roth. It appears that he is acting with all due deliberation as is absolutely appropriate. This will be a learning experience for everyone.

    And on a personal note, as President Roth noted, he did not know many of his graduating class. I, for one, would liked to have known him then.

  24. Having observed a similar interaction between Wesleyan students and Middletown police in 1954, let me make a few comments.

    First, Dr. Roth stated “But let me be clear: we will not tolerate abusive behavior by the police any more than we will tolerate it by our own students.” Although this is a great statement, backing it up will be difficult. Second, as Jeff Boutwell ’98 reminded us, Dr. Roth has no authority over the Middletown police beyond back channel routes through the Middletown city government. Third, because the campus abandoned the doctrine of “in loci parentis” in the 1960’s, Roth can’t be expected to control student behavior in an instant, particular with many living off-campus. He can only enforce campus rules after a negative incident occurs.

    From my perspective improving relations between the campus and the Middletown community will not be an easy task. Not having visited since 1996, I don’t know what the current community values and mores are. What I do know is this. Relationships are two-way streets and the Wesleyan community must address the question “What must Wesleyan, particularly its student body, do to improve community perceptions about Wesleyan?”

    In my view, the biggest impediment to improving ‘town-gown’ relations is Wesleyan’s elitist paradigm. It starts at the admissions office, is perpetuated by the faculty and administration, and permeates the Alumni office in its dealings with Alumni. I recall an article during 2007 by the on-line Newsletter editor extolling the virtues of Wesleyan’s ‘small college’ environment as providing a superior education leading to success in life compared to larger institutions of higher learning. Not only were these remarks off base, but totally false. I wrote that individual a letter calling to his attention the successes of people from places that are traditionally considered weak institutions (and people are wrong about that too) and received an acknowledgement that my point was well taken but Wesleyan still was better. Such elitist arrogance radiates from Wesleyan into the community, and therefore, it is no surprise that when students or others cross a social or legal boundary, pent-up resentments will surface in most unpleasant ways.
    Wesleyan offers a high quality education (or at least did so in the past) but it not a guarantee of a superior place in society or success. A certain level of humility about being given the opportunity study there and to develop the skills of life-long learning will go a long way to improving both town-gown relations, and a realistic expectation of what life will hold on graduation.

    In short, part of the solution to improving relations between Wesleyan and the surrounding community is for Wesleyan to reassess itself and tone down the elitist and smug attitude that prevails there.

    Margaret Thatcher said “The veneer of civilization is very thin.” It’s best to remember that when dealing with the world beyond Wesleyan’s campus and adjust accordingly.

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