We now know the “possible active shooter” at the University of Rhode Island this month was a misunderstanding of epic proportions. But the incident reignited calls to arm university police — a discussion worth having.
After 26 people were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December, we advocated against armed officers in every school. We stand by that. But arming officers at a college or university is different. They may not make a real difference during a real mass shooting — Virginia Tech’s armed police force couldn’t stop a lone gunman from killing 32 people in 2007 — but being a sworn officer on campus goes well beyond those rare events.
To begin, URI is essentially a small city, with approximately 16,000 students and 3,000 admin-istrators, faculty and staff — a population similar to Narragansett. Each year, URI police respond to the same types of calls as any municipal or state officer — assault, larceny, burglary, liquor and drug violations, rape. In 1997, a URI student was struck by a bullet in a gang-related drive-by shooting. A road rage incident near the URI president’s home in 1999 resulted in gunfire.
Rhode Island is the only state that prohibits public university and college officers from being armed, which leads to a false perception they are “security guards.” Campus officers graduate from the municipal training academy like any other officer in the state, and many have had long careers on other forces first. But they cannot carry firearms. If they need armed backup, they call South Kingstown police first, followed by the State Police. The wait, a study found, can be between 8 and 10 minutes, an eternity in an emergency.
This is not a new discussion. The last serious debate began in 2008 after a series of violent incidents on college campuses, including the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. In 2009, the Board of Governors for Higher Education — then the university’s governing body — held a public forum on the issue. A year later, the Board of Governors’ Campus Security Commission issued a report. It fell short of an outright recommendation, but suggested the idea be explored internally. In July 2011, the Government Affairs Subcommittee presented the report to the Board of Governors, which took no action prior to being dismantled in 2012.