June 27, 2008
In the early hours of May 16, about 200 students gathered outside in Middletown, Conn., to celebrate the end of the semester at Wesleyan University. The crowd chatted and drank as friends said goodbye to each other and seniors anticipated graduation. Around 1:30 a.m., when local police officers couldn’t clear the street after several announcements to “go home,” they used Taser guns and canines to disperse the crowd. Five students were arrested on charges ranging from inciting a riot to possession of marijuana.
The Wesleyan incident sheds light on the significance of city-university relations, an issue most colleges must deal with throughout the year–especially when students are throwing a bunch of parties. Local police departments sometimes use force to break up gatherings, a questionable move when there is a lack of understanding between students and law enforcement. In contrast, at a school like Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, Mich., where students and the East Lansing police department work together, both groups are moving towards a cohesive plan for dealing with parties that keeps everyone’s safety in mind.
Most members of the Wesleyan community viewed the police’s actions as excessive force. “I got pepper sprayed, Tasered, and [tackled] to the ground,” recalled Ian Trancynger, 21, one of the arrested students. “I heard warnings that we should leave, but it never came to my mind that [police] officers employed by the state are going to attack a bunch of kids on the street.”
Wesleyan has a public safety department, and the campus’ officers are provided by a private security company. Campus public safety employees are not trained police officers and therefore lack the authority to make arrests or use force in situations other than in self-defense. This is common practice at private institutions like Wesleyan, which decide at their discretion whether to have a police department on campus. “We call whenever we have a situation that we feel like we’re unable to control, like when we need assistance at a party,” said Wesleyan’s Director of Public Safety Dave Meyer. “We also call for burglary, burglary-in-progress, assault, robbery or other serious incidents based on the situation.”
On May 16, Meyer’s officers decided they needed the Middletown police department’s help. That night, approximately 15 police cars, including squads from two nearby cities and the Connecticut State Police, lined the street. Witnesses reported a high level of antagonism between students and the officers; numerous students reported seeing a beer can thrown at the first police car to arrive on the scene. “But I wouldn’t call the scene a riot. We were angry the police were there, but we weren’t doing anything violent. I think there were a bunch of ways they could have dealt with us” Trancynger said.