09/20/2007

Universities rethink unarmed police

By Kevin Johnson
USA TODAY

BLACKSBURG, Va. Five months after the Virginia Tech massacre, some of the few remaining universities that do not permit campus police to carry guns are rethinking the firearms bans.

 
Austin Peay State University police officers Timothy Adair, left, and Piot Bol clear a stairway during a mock shooting training session on campus this July, which included city and campus police. (By Greg Williamson, The Leaf-Chronicle via AP)
The April 16 tragedy, the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history, prompted a national reassessment of campus security plans, including whether to arm police who had not previously carried guns.

"There are police forces that have the responsibility to make life and safety decisions, and they don't have the full equipment to do it," says Raymond Thrower Jr., president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

"It's like giving a firefighter a car and telling him to go put out the fire without the truck and the rest of the equipment."

Many public universities already have armed police, according to the Justice Department, which is poised to release a new report on campus police agencies in November. The department's most recent report, in 1996, found 81% of public universities had armed police agencies. It expects to see a slight increase in the number of campuses permitting officers to carry guns.

Among universities and legislatures weighing changes:

• On Tuesday, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, a 1988 Virginia Tech graduate, endorsed a recommendation to arm officers at the state's three public universities, which serve more than 50,000 students.

"Unfortunately, horrific acts, like the one at Virginia Tech, can take place," Culver says.

The Board of Regents, the governing body for the universities, this week asked for a safety plan that would include arming campus police.

•Nevada education officials next month plan to take up a proposal to allow some college faculty members and staffers across eight public campuses to carry guns as part of a special reserve officer corps.Half the Nevada schools allow campus police to carry guns.

•Auburn University, which in 2004 allowed the city of Auburn, Ala., to take over its armed police patrols, is expected within the next month to receive an assessment of its entire security operation, including its agreement with the city, says Bob Ritenbaugh, a university assistant vice president.

• In Oregon, a legislative proposal to permit university officers to carry firearms failed earlier this year, leaving all serious law enforcement issues at the University of Oregon and other public colleges to state and local police.

The proposal has been offered twice in the past three legislative sessions and will likely come up again, says Dawn Phillips, a spokeswoman for Republican Rep. Linda Flores, who supported the bill.

Although the proposal predated the Tech shooting, Phillips says it was "mired in the politics around the Virginia Tech" tragedy.

"It was too close to the Virginia Tech shootings," says Democrat Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, an opponent of the bill. "I didn't believe it was the right bill to approach the problem."

Brian Reaves, author of the new Justice Department report, says a few large campus agencies remain unarmed, despite the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.

"You would think that after Virginia Tech, it would be a slam-dunk argument," Reaves says.

Copyright 2007 USA TODAY

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