What Do You Think?
A PoliceOne Special Report by Scott Buhrmaster
Columbus State Community College (OH) President Val Moeller doesn’t want guns on her campus. Understandable -- when it comes to the institution’s civilian faculty and nearly 23,000 students -- but extremely controversial when you realize that Moeller’s resolve to maintain a firearms-free environment extends to the sworn officers who make up the college’s police force.
"The question of whether our agency should be armed is a highly volatile issue," CSCC Police Chief Mike Stritenberger told PoliceOne. "Our officers are very emotional about it, as well they should be. I fully support their interest in being allowed to carry firearms. Firearms and police officers go together. In my more than 30 years of sworn law enforcement work, this is the first position I’ve taken where carrying a firearm is not allowed."
President Moeller’s thinking was made clear, at least in part, on a "Chat with the President" forum based on the Columbus State Intranet system. When asked to explain her anti-armed officer position she replied, "Much of the research shows that having armed public safety officers on campus increases the chances for more violence."
When challenged to produce the source of the "research" referred to, Moeller cited "NACUBO, the National Association of College and University Officers." However, the sole unnamed supporter of the arming movement noted that Moeller’s response, related verbatim above, was misleading.
"Right off the bat, Val attempts to mislead us by citing an organization of ‘college and university officers,’ seemingly an organization of campus law enforcers," writes the author. "However, ‘NACUBO’ actually stands for the ‘National Association of College and University Business Officers’, a group with absolutely no expertise in law enforcement or public safety."
Continuing her justification, Moeller writes, "Also, when someone comes on campus and sees armed public safety officers, it indicates that the campus is not safe."
"We continually run into faculty members who are stunned to learn that our officers are unarmed," responds Chief Stritenberger. "They assume, as do likely many of the students and their parents, that we are armed and trained to use that level of force, if necessary, to protect them."
In summarizing her position Moeller continued, "In some cases, firearms which public safety officers have carried have been used against them. Finally, Columbus State works closely with the Columbus Police Department to insure that if necessary, Columbus Police will respond immediately as back-up for our officers."
"Of course there are risks inherent to being an armed police officer, including attacks that result in your weapon being used against you and armed encounters that result in legally challenged shootings but that’s part of police work," says Chief Stritenberg. "To say that because there are risks associated with being armed, police officers shouldn’t carry guns seems mind-boggling,"
In a 2002 television interview, the college’s former vice president of Institutional Advancement, Pieter Wykoff, also weighed in on the anti-arming side. "We don’t have a history of violent crime," he said. "I’ve been at the college for five years, so we haven’t really had a need to have weapons on campus."
"That is a fallible position," responds Chief Stritenberger. "Our campus is located in the middle of an extremely dangerous, high-crime area. We encounter many different people and we make both misdemeanor and felony arrests. To say that just because tragedy hasn’t struck eradicates the potential that it will is a weak and dangerous position."
Today, reports of school and workplace shootings seem almost common. In fact, a recent USA Today article reports that in just the first few weeks of the 2003/2004 school year, the number of reported violent deaths in public schools surpassed the number reported in either of the previous two school years. Among the factors determined by experts to be possible causes of the increase are magnified student stress, a poor economy and higher academic standards, all factors present on college-level campuses.
Given that, an opinion that arming sworn police officers is both unnecessary and ultimately counter-productive to public safety is sure to draw fire. And draw fire it has.
In addition to pursuing legal channels that may yield support for arming the agency—a quest that, according to the chief, has yet to yield fruit—supporters have posted an exhaustive web site, introduced with the ominous warning, "Columbus State Cops Are Sitting Ducks!" and filled with extensive commentary supporting the pro-arming cause and countering claims that doing so would be a mistake.
The arguments in support of arming Columbus State Community College Officers and other currently unarmed officers in the same position across the country are seemingly endless. Perhaps there are some who believe that arguments against armed campus police forces are just as powerful. Either way, we are very interested in what you have to say.
One expert opinion in favor of arming campus police officers, both in college and pre-college settings, comes from drug expert Steve Walton. Walton, author of the best-selling guide, "First Response Guide to Street Drugs" and a career drug investigator says the prevalence of drug use in schools is reason enough to arm campus cops.
"Many of the drugs popular on today’s college and high school campuses cause students to become extremely volatile," says Walton. "The drugs can cause paranoia, extreme agitation and tainted decision-making that can result in violent confrontations with campus officers. If an officer finds himself challenged with approaching a student who has consumed a drug such as Methamphetamine, Cocaine, PCP, Wet and others, and he is not prepared to protect himself and the general population with the degree of force necessary, up to and including the use of a firearm, he is in potentially grave danger.
"Campuses across the country of all sizes and demographic mixes are susceptible to student drug use," he continues. "It’s a fact that few deny. Given that, the decision to remove one of the most essential force options an officer has seems in very poor judgment. I would think parents would demand that the officers who protect their sons and daughters be armed."
To arm or not to arm. To date, that remains the burning and controversial question at Columbus State Community College. We look forward to hearing what you have to say! E-mail the Editor