Borrowing "Fear City" tactic from 1975, police union tells Yale students to avoid New Haven

Yale University and New Haven officials blasted the labor union representing campus police officers Tuesday for handing out flyers telling new students it was unsafe to leave school grounds, walk alone, take public transportation or be outdoors after 8 p.m.

The pamphlets, distributed Sunday as incoming Yale freshmen moved into their dorms, came emblazoned with a hooded skull and purported to be a “survival guide” for first-year students at the prestigious university.

They portrayed Yale's home city on the Connecticut coast as a place to be avoided, especially after dark.

“The incidence of crime and violence in New Haven is shockingly high, and it is getting worse,” it warned, offering examples of recent crimes.

School and city officials called the handouts a misleading scare tactic by a union seeking a new contract.

“They handed out unbelievably offensive flyers with misrepresentative information, scaring Yale students and promoting a narrative of our city that is inaccurate and totally offensive,” New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said at a news conference. “And to do this is childish and is selfish.”

Officials with the union, the Yale Police Benevolent Association, said the flyer was only meant to help keep students safe and had nothing to do with contract talks.

The pamphlet is a close copy of an infamous leaflet, entitled “Welcome to Fear City,” that New York City's police and firefighter unions distributed in 1975 to visitors arriving at the airport. That flyer was put out as the unions fought a plan by New York's mayor to lay off thousands of police officers and other government workers to avoid bankruptcy.

The Yale Police Benevolent Association's version had the same drawing of the Grim Reaper, the same basic safety advice and some sentences copied almost verbatim.

The New York City original spurred outrage from civic leaders. The Yale Police Benevolent Association's take drew roughly the same reaction from city and school leaders.

“It’s inappropriate and it is fear mongering,” Yale Police Chief Anthony Campbell said at the news conference. “We do not support this, and to be quite frank I’m really disgusted that they have chosen to take this path.”

The chief said when he asked union president Mike Hall about the flyers, Hall told him they were distributed after the union received a contract proposal it didn’t like.

Hall denied the flyer had anything to do with contract talks.

“We wanted to apprise incoming first-year students to be careful while embarking on their academic journey at Yale,” Hall told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “We consider it a safety brochure.”

Hall said the flyer’s design was meant to grab attention, as Yale students are bombarded with pamphlets and other information materials when they arrive on campus.

The contract for the 71 officers and detectives in the union expired last month, and negotiations, which began last year, continue.

Crime rates in New Haven have historically been higher than the U.S. average, with stark contrasts between its poorer and richer neighborhoods.

But Elicker, the mayor, said the flyer gave a misleading portrait of crime in the city of nearly 139,000. He said over the past three years, violent crime has dropped 29%, property crime is down nearly 8% and other crimes have decreased 19%.

The union’s flyer used statistics from just a short period to make the case that crime is rising, noting that the city had reported 14 killings through July 23 compared with seven during the same seven-month period last year. It also noted that burglaries and vehicle thefts rose during the same period.

The area around Yale has much lower crime rates.

In the downtown police district, which includes part of Yale’s sprawling campus, there have been no murders this year and there were none last year during the same time period, police data show. There were upticks in robberies and burglaries, but they total less than 50 incidents this year.

Mike Lawlor, one of New Haven's police commissioners, said he thought the leaflet appeared to actually work against the union, making it seem like Yale police haven't been able to stop crime.

“If this image of a dystopian hellscape were accurate, it would be an extraordinary self-own by the Yale police," he said. "But it’s not true. This tactic has got to be the most boneheaded tactic I have ever seen.”