In 2015, the University of Rhode Island made an affirmative decision to arm police officers on their campus. This decision was made after months of discussions with campus constituents, a review of pertinent research (Bordner & Petersen, 1983; Bratton Group, 2002; Griffith, Hueston, Wilson, Moyers, & Hart, 2004; Wilson & Wilson, 2001; Wilson & Wilson, 2015),and the recommendations of recognized experts in the field of law enforcement procedure, practice and policy. At the time of this decision, although the three state-supported institutions of higher education had personnel who were, in fact, statutorily considered to be police officers, Rhode Island was the only state in the nation that did not arm state campus law enforcement officers.
The principal body of empirical research regarding the arming of campus law enforcement officers has not appeared to support the various arguments posed in opposition but rather has considered issues related to its implementation (Bromley, 1998; Bumgamer, 2009; Connor, 2003; McBride, 2009; Wilson & Wilson, 2011). And limited prior research exists regarding community perceptions of campus police departments and their duties (Johnson & Bromley, 1999; Wilson & Wilson, 2011b). It has been suggested by some that campus police have a legitimate need to carry weapons on duty in light of the increase in campus crime, especially that committed by off campus persons (Vanbenthuysen, 1976). Research conducted specifically related to the arming of the Brown University Campus Police Department in 2002determined that “Guns are necessary to allow campus police to do their job properly and to equip them for the broader role of policing adjoining areas and not just campus property (Bratton Group, 2002).”
Empirical research on the specific issues of arming campus law enforcement has seemingly been sparse, with this author being one of the very few known to have taken any level of serious consideration of the issue (Connor, 2003; McBride, 2009; Vanbenthuysen, 1976; Wilson & Wilson, 2001; Wilson & Wilson, 2011a; Wilson & Wilson, 2011b; Wilson & Wilson, 2011c; Wilson & Wilson, 2013; Wilson & Wilson, 2014). Yet the basis used for the decisions made at the two remaining public institutions, Rhode Island College and the Community College of Rhode Island, to deny them this capability, remain somewhat unclear. In fact, the same level of conversation that took place during the arming process for URI has never seemed to take place at the other two schools.
As an example, at the Community College of Rhode Island, the college’s president made it quite clear at the time that the Board of Education gave the authority for officers to be armed that the process would not take place at CCRI and would not be considered. There was an apparent reliance on what was perceived as a conviction that, since the school had no resident students, they would be able to rely more heavily on local agencies to respond to issues. Thus, conversations regarding the possibility of arming officers at that school have never been held. Consequently, although anecdotal information is available, there is no verifiable evidence of either community acceptance or rejection of this concept. It may be notable, however, that during the two previous years no less than 4 community colleges in neighboring states (Connecticut and Massachusetts) had chosen to arm their officers.
At Rhode Island College, however, the decision on arming, announced in a November 2013 email to the campus community, indicated that the decision was based on the results of a survey that was slightly in favor of arming (51% for, 38% against, 10% undecided), and strong opinions published in the Rhode Island Anchor, the official student newspaper. The survey took place during a one-week period, the news articles were published relatively soon after, and no further conversations were held. To many, it seemed as though the “fix” was in from the very beginning.
Yet it was a well-known fact that the school’s administration was adamantly opposed to the concept of arming. No further conversations which would have allowed an opportunity for those who supported arming to openly discuss the issue were ever allowed to take place. In other words, the only opinions that seemed to be of importance, or even considered, were those in opposition. This would seem, then, to provide a clear indication of the “open-mindedness” of the college’s administration on the issue and casts serious doubts as to the validity of the decision not to arm.
Data Collection Methodology:
To provide more clarity to the status of Rhode Island’s two remaining state campus law enforcement agencies, data was collected by viewing the publicly available information records on internet web sites of a total of 1,046 2-and 4-year higher education institutions across the country, based on their stated deployment of personnel involved in campus safety. While it is known that various private colleges and universities maintain armed law enforcement agencies on campus, only public, state-supported institutions of higher education were considered. This included information taken directly from their website, viewing imagery of their campus officers, or information found in their yearly required Clery Report. Where the information at question could not be confirmed using these methods, direct contact was made with the agency. Agency police status was based on whether the agency was considered to have any level of statutory or codified full arrest, search and seizure authority similar to their traditional municipal, county, or state police counterparts, and whether such status permitted them to carry weapons while either on or off duty.
Analysis and Findings
Where 4-year institutions were concerned, 642 public institutions in the study area were found, accounting for 61.38 % of the entire sample. 85.36 % (N=548) of the 4-year institutions found indicated that they supported a full-service safety agency with either statutory or regulatory police powers. Of these, 99.82 % (N=547) of all institutions that indicated they supported a full-service law enforcement agency also indicated that those individuals carried firearms as part of their duties. Both URI and RIC were included in the listing of 548 agencies having police departments, however URI was the only RI school listed in the 547 agencies that carry firearms.
Based on this information, while Rhode Island College was found to be listed among the 548 institutions that indicated they maintained a full-service law enforcement agency, the institution is not listed among those institutions that allow officers to carry firearms. Thus, Rhode Island College may be singularly identified as being the only 4-year institution of the 548 institutions listed as having a full-service police agency that is unarmed.
Where 2-year institutions were concerned, 400 public institutions (community colleges), or 38.24 % of the total study sample, were found. 39.5 % (N=158) of the 2-year institutions found indicated that they maintained a full-service law enforcement agency on campus. 98.1 % (N=155) of 2-year institutions indicated that officers carried firearms as part of their duties. The Community College of Rhode Island was found to be 1 of 3 community colleges stating that they maintained a full-service law enforcement agency that did not arm officers.
There is no doubt that the possible arming of campus officers is an issue that has always been fraught with a high degree of emotionalism, politics (both internal and external to the campus), philosophical, social, and personalized agendas. Yet while the public perception of traditional campus life has changed little during the past two decades, the task of providing for a safe living and working environment on the campuses of the nation’s multitude of institutions of higher learning has changed dramatically.
As society becomes more complex, and crime spreads to every facet of life, institutions across the nation have been charged with the responsibility of providing a safe educational, working and living environment on campus for employees, faculty and students alike.
If, as former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy once stated that “Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the type of law enforcement it insists on”, then it becomes obvious that the leadership of these two schools may still be insisting that their law enforcement officers be much less than professional.