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Should Campus Police Be Armed?

Written by James McBride

Should your school campus be protected by armed campus police? Since Virginia Tech, this question has been asked more and more. In reality, there is no single answer to this complex question. Why? Each learning institution has its own unique personality, culture and needs when it comes to safety and security. As most experts in the field know, what works for one site may not work for another.

A protective concept (like armed police) may be a fit for one institution, and an absolute waste of time and money at another. When it comes to protecting a campus, there is no single template that can be used as a panacea for all institutions. Hence, armed police may not be a viable option in some locations.

That being the case, a second critical question arises. Why should the police serving a particular campus be armed? Many institutions have already answered this question. The U.S. Department of Justice released data earlier this year indicating that two-thirds of campus law enforcement agencies surveyed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics used armed patrol officers during the 2004-05 academic year.

Nearly all public campuses used sworn officers compared to less than half of private institutions surveyed. (See U.S Justice Department, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Special Report, “Campus Law Enforcement,” 2004-2005,” February 2008, NCJ 219374).

Other recent data shows a trend toward using armed police on American college and university campuses. But does this type of data explain why officials at an institution of higher learning would want to arm their police? Here are a few reasons why some institutions might elect to do so.

When the institution’s protective force is already sworn, arming them is the next logical step. Unarmed people with police power but no arms are nothing more than lawsuits ready to happen because they are simply not the real thing. In this dangerous day and age, the concept of unarmed police is an ancient one that has no foundation in logic or reality and should be abandoned by higher education as quickly as possible.

The bulk of the available evidence has shown that unarmed security or armed police are the two basic viable options readily available to institutions today. Over the years, some educators concluded that students have the right to be as well protected in the learning environment as they would be at home. This group of administrators believes that institutions have a duty to give students and employees the best protection possible.

These administrators elect not to rely completely upon the local police or sheriff protection and hire their own sworn police personnel. This doctrine has been espoused by many individuals and organizations over the years, and recent incidents of sporadic and targeted violence have proven its validity. Unfortunately state laws in some cases deny university administrators the armed police option.

The world has become a very scary place, and learning environments are no longer exempt from crime and violence. As much as we’d like them to be, our “ivory towers” are simply not tranquil islands of safety. Colleges and universities and schools face the same horrible old and new threats that are posed to any other kind of facility where large number of people can be found. No environment is completely safe, and no single approach to protection will defend against each and every potential hazard or threat.

This means that our protective teams (security experts, administrators, and other internal and external key players) must become as creative as possible within the limits of our budgets and the local political environment. We must learn to more carefully select the individual components used to weave our protective tapestry. The concept of armed police represents only one dimension of each institution’s unique security and safety tapestry.

There is no doubt that institutions of higher learning have a responsibility to their students and employees to address certain dangers in reasonable and creative ways. Federal and state courts are giving all of us guidance in this regard. Certain types of common hazards, such as the potential for an active shooter incident or severe weather emergency, cannot be ignored.

When it comes to active shooters, recent shooting incidents on high school, college and university campuses have shown that without the threat of encountering armed police, perpetrators are often given an unbridled opportunity to cause mayhem. There is no doubt that the presence of armed police can deny perpetrators a “killing field” setting. For this reason alone, institutions are clearly justified in thinking about adding armed police to their protection package.

Federal and state courts are finally giving all of us guidance in this regard. In many cases, judges are rendering decisions that suggest that campus officials have a significant obligation (if not a duty) to “police” their own facilities in order to adequately protect their “invitees” and their workforce.

On campuses where the local police response is slow or unreliable, the need for college officials to seek better on-site response capability is obvious. Higher education administrators are beginning to realize that a perceived lack of adequate protection can have a serious impact on recruitment and retention. Parents and students are beginning to ask more questions about safety and security before they make their final selections.

Some institutions may decide not to use their own armed campus police because of the significant costs associated with it. Armed police must be carefully selected, trained and supervised. Equipment is expensive, and so is ammunition for the ongoing training that must occur. But cost should not be the only criteria used to make this type of decision.

Like it or not, colleges and universities must be willing to accept their responsibility to adequately protect their own facilities. What constitutes reasonable levels of protection is up to the officials at each institution, as well as federal and state laws. Thanks to IACLEA and other groups, industry standards now exist that enable officials to easily compare what they have to what they need. Management assistance and other types of support are readily available to assist these institutions in making their grounds, buildings and dorms safer than they have been in the past.

On any given campus, armed police may or may not be the best choice to make the place safer, depending upon all of the important variables noted above. As more institutions turn to armed police, IACLEA offers a variety of “best practices” and other types of critical support that can be utilized to make that administrative journey much safer, shorter and inexpensive.

Chief James T. McBride holds a master’s degree in public administration from Cleveland State University and is a Certified Law Enforcement Executive at Lakeland Community College in Ohio. He is also a LEMAP assessor and a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Campus Safety (Prevention Group). He can be reached at jmcbride@lakelandcc.edu.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2009

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