By: Alex Wilson
Misconceptions surrounding the arming of campus law enforcement agencies frequently plague conversations between college administrators and public safety leaders. This is unfortunate as the current threat climate present in modern society should be an obvious motivator to begin changing policies in order to maintain the safety of students, staff, faculty, and visitors who share campus communities. Administrators often allow their lack of understanding of law enforcement and fears surrounding guns to restrict conversations on the matter which in turn affects the safety of the community.
At our local Lane Community College (LCC), public safety officers are not security nor are they police. They are non-sworn law enforcement officers, charged with enforcing local, state, and federal laws on the campus. Officers conduct traffic stops, make arrests, respond to emergency and non-emergency calls for service, conduct investigations, threat assessments, and are the primary medical responders on campus. Despite these roles which are unquestionably critical to the safety of the community, officers are not police and are limited in many legal capacities which police officers are immune. They do all of this while only being armed with batons and pepper spray. Although this is a step, these resources do not guard the officers or the campus community against overwhelming threat facing soft targets across the nation.
The thought of an active shooter situation is on the minds of educators everywhere. These incidents are occurring at an unprecedented rate and oftentimes in educational facilities. In October, our neighboring Umpqua Community College experienced such an incident which left nine individuals dead and another seven to nine injured. Nobody could possibly know whether an armed public safety agency on campus could have neutralized the threat with greater haste as the circumstances of the individual case largely dictate the outcome. Despite this, there is no denying that in the minutes a shooter is active, the faster first responders can arrive on the scene, the faster the shooter can be contained.
Because of this, why would administrators at LCC be so resistant to arming public safety officers? Part of this is due to pushback from students and employees. Many do not understand that officers with guns are still public safety officers and not police officers. A common misconception is that by arming public safety officers, they would gain the added powers of a sworn officer. This is simply not the case. The only additional power the officers would gain is the power to quickly stop threats to themselves and the entire campus community. The ability to use lethal force wouldn’t even be a new one as officers carry batons which can be lethal weapons depending on how and when they are used. However, although batons are lethal weapons, they cannot be used to stop bullets.
The next misconception is that public safety officers, not being police officers, would be under trained to carry firearms. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of public safety officers ARE fully trained police officers and have carried a gun in a previous job as a sworn officer or currently carry a gun in another professional capacity. Many have been through the Lane County Sheriff’s Office Reserve Academy and of those, several are currently serving as reserve law enforcement officers. Suffice it to say, officers are qualified to perform this task. The next question the community must ask is who they would rather have protecting them, highly trained armed public safety officers or armed students with an unknown level of training?
As of now, students with concealed handgun licenses are permitted to carry a handgun on campus while employees are not. Now, while this is possibly better than other institutions which have a total ban on firearms when it comes to stopping an active shooter, the college certainly cannot rely on armed students to stop a threat and doing so would be completely irresponsible. Students should expect to feel safe and protected on campus and by administrators allowing students to carry on campus and without an armed agency readily available to do this, they are not safe, nor are they protected from the threat of an active shooter. Granted, one of those students who are carrying a concealed handgun may be in a position to act in the event of a shooting, either mentally or physically, but this is questionable. They could be a veteran of our armed forces or it could be their first time carrying after taking a short course at the local gun range. They may have the aptitude to stop a shooter or they may not. Regardless, as students, they shouldn’t be expected to react in such a manner.
It is irresponsible for administrators to disregard campus safety by allowing their fears and biases to enter professional discussions surrounding guns, leaving the fate of the community in the hands of first responders who could be five to twenty minutes away and questionably trained students who may or may not be carrying a gun. By arming public safety officers, the campus community would be under the protection of an armed law enforcement entity, able to respond within seconds of shots being fired. Officers would be able to conduct their duties with the confidence that they will be able to defend themselves against the ultimate threat.
The conversation on changing state law to allow community colleges to found their own police departments is an entirely different one. There is no questioning that a sworn police department on campus would have immeasurable benefits to the safety of the campus and improve the effectiveness of departments substantially. However, that is another proposal entirely. The most important and critical step in the improvement of security policy is the arming of public safety officers as active shooters are not a matter of if it will happen, but a matter of when.