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KINGSTON—On Monday afternoon, a panel of University of Rhode Island staff and faculty were on hand to field questions regarding the potential of arming campus police. The recent impetus for allowing campus police officers, who currently work unarmed, to carry weapons as a means of student and faculty safety stems from last April’s gun scare at URI.
On the morning of April 4, 2013, law enforcement from across Washington County responded to a report of a person with a gun at the Chafee Social Science Center, sending the university into lockdown. During the subsequent Rhode Island State Police investigation, it was found that no gunman was ever on campus. The event, however, has sparked the university, led by president David Dooley, to reassess its response policies, releasing a preliminary report on the subject of campus readiness later that April.
One of the most significant, and controversial, recommendations in the ‘Chafee Report’ is to arm campus police, a topic which was debated Monday afternoon. Stephen Baker, director of Public Safety at URI was joined by Mary Jo Gonzales, assistant vice president for Student Affairs, and South Kingstown Police Chief Vincent Vespia, fielded comments from other faculty and staff regarding the potential of arming campus police. Baker, who oversees the 25-man staff of campus police officers, first provided a brief overview of the types of crime that occurred on the URI campus last year.
According to Baker, a total of 373 offenses were committed on campus, ranging from parking and other traffic violations to arrests for drug and alcohol possession.
“One of the things that campus police have the ability to do that you can’t in a municipality is, instead of arresting [students], we can refer them to the Office of Student Life,” said Baker. “We deal with more issues than the 64 arrests, and these were all situations [in 2012] where the student could have been arrested, but were instead referred for a conduct violation.”
However, according to URI’s 2013 crime and fire safety report, there were no homicide or manslaughter crimes committed on any campus in the state from 2010-12, and only two weapons violations where students were carrying knives in 2011 and 2012. Both students and faculty asked whether arming campus police would prevent future violent incidents considering there has been little crime involving a weapon of the past several years on URI’s campuses.
“In my opinion, it is very difficult to determine how much crime could be prevented with any type of firearms, [but] we are looking at it as a tool that every police officer has in the state has, except URI, CCRI and RIC police,” said Baker. “Our feeling is, if we are being asked to be first responders to all incidents, then we need all the tools that are available to every other police department.”
Vespia echoed Baker’s comments, noting that university police are cannot often help responding municipal law enforcement in the case of an incident, such as an active shooter on campus, because they are unarmed.
“In the annals of American law enforcement, traditionally police officers have been armed with a firearm, and it has been recognized as simply a tool of the trade,” said Vespia. “Can you imagine a doctor without a stethoscope? I cannot imagine a police officer without a gun.”
A number of faculty and students spoke in opposition to the potential arming of campus police, stating that introducing weapons on campus would create more fear and insecurity among the student body than offer a feeling of protection.
“I am not a perfect person and have had run-ins with the police,” said URI student Cameron Botelho. “I have had experiences where police officers have used the firearm they hold as an ego-boost to do what they want.”
“You can say Columbine, Newtown, Virginia Tech, and even Chafee, are all incidents, but they are isolated and involve the same concept of a weapon being used,” he continued. “Guns kill people, whether in the hands of a student or a police officer. There are more peaceful ways to deal with someone that has a weapon, Violence happens to everybody, and a lot of it is around guns and fear.”
Kathleen Davis, professor of English, also noted to the panel that the URI Faculty Senate just last year reaffirmed its support for a weapon-free campus. Panelist Lynne Derbyshire, associate professor of Communications Studies, further expressed her concern for increased racial and ethnic profiling by police officers if allowed to carry weapons.
“If you are driving on route 95 in the U.S., you are five times as likely to be pulled over if you are a man of color, but police officers find the rates of weapons and substances possession are the same [among white people and persons of a different race or ethnicity].”
“I have worked closely with Steve Baker and have a great deal of confidence with him, but I also know that, four years ago, students were chalking on the sidewalk and four police cars came. Would that happen to white students?”
Baker emphasized that campus police are as well trained as any municipal police officer in the state and that arming police officers will protect them as well.
“This is not a gun-free campus, and we have three officers here [in the room] now that have firearms,” said Baker. “There is no magic gate stopping people that come here. We have [URI police officers] who are better trained to deal with studs because they haven’t been armed all these years, yet they are not allowed to have the tools to protect even their own life. If you don’t want us to be the first responders, we shouldn’t be police officers. We should be security officers.”
The Chafee Report also estimates the potential costs to the university at approximately $500,000, which includes firearm training for campus police and establishing an armory on campus to store weapons and ammunition. Professor Carolyn Betensky, associate professor of English at URI, questioned not only the necessity for arming campus police officers, but also how the associated cost would trickle down to students.
“What I haven’t heard is a money person form the university talk about what is going to be cut,” said Betensky. “Tuitions are frozen thankfully for now, but we are going to invest a lot of money for a 24-like scenario, and $500,000 for one year is a lot of money. That is what I would like to hear from President Dooley.”
In closing, a number of professors also stressed the need for better training among faculty, students and staff in how to respond and remove themselves safely from a potentially violent situation, such as an active shooter on campus. The Chafee Report highlights such training as a priority.
“I don’t know if people realize how afraid students were after the Chafee incident,” said Barbara Costella, professor of Sociology at URI. “We can’t have an armed guard at every door, but [arming campus police] is being seen as a panacea; give police guns and we don’t have to worry about it. I think [preparedness training] is something that needs to have as much attention as the gun issue.”
“Emergency preparedness training is a necessity for the entire university, and it is something we want to bring out to everybody,” said Baker. “Some of it is available online right now and we have been teaching it in URI 101, but we would like to see mandatory training [of faculty, staff and students]. It is something we will be pushing for.”
The next public forum on arming campus police will be held at the Memorial Union Ballroom at URI on Oct. 28 from 3-4 p.m. For more information regarding the Chafee Report visit www.uri.edu/emergency/police. www.uri.edu/emergency/police.