When a College Employee Shoots a Student

Armed security forces have been standard on campuses for several decades. Is that too big a risk?

A campus police officer at the University of Chicago
A campus police officer patrols the University of Chicago. (Jim Young / Reuters)

“Twenty-one, mental. He’s a mental,” a university police officer said into his radio as his car approached Charles Thomas, a fourth-year student at the University of Chicago, on Tuesday night after reports of possible burglary and damage to buildings. Three campus police officers had responded to the call. Thomas, who according to police was holding a metal object, began walking toward the officer, as body-cam footage released by the university shows. “Drop that weapon,” the officer, who had stepped out of his squad car, said, pointing his gun at Thomas, according to the video. A little over a minute passed, and Thomas began charging at the officer before the officer allegedly fired his gun, hitting Thomas in the shoulder. (Thomas faces charges of aggravated assault of a police officer with a weapon and criminal damage of property.)

Circumstances aside, the fact of a shooting by a campus police officer—believed to be the first at the university in more than 30 years—comes as national attention is trained on questions of school safety; one proposal that has dominated the conversation is to arm teachers and provide more resources for elementary- and secondary-school officers. College campuses faced a similar question in the 1960s and 1970s, amid widespread student unrest—in part the result of desegregation and the Vietnam War—and the police response to it. And college students today continue to protest the result: armed campus police forces.

Though many students have opposed having armed police on campuses, administrators have been reluctant to reassess arming the officers. Now, with the political climate changing in the wake of the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, this debate may shift. Last week, students at Howard University managed to wrest promises of reform from the administration, including taking a look at the necessity of armed campus police officers. Other campuses may soon find themselves in similar positions.

The establishment of armed campus police grew out of a concern, some 60 years ago, that local and state police officers were not sufficient to deal with discord on campuses. The number of campus police departments exploded from there. The latest federal data on the campus police departments at public and private higher-education institutions is from the 2011–2012 school year, but it still hints at the current situation. Seventy-five percent of campus law-enforcement agencies have armed officers, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey. Nine in 10 public campuses had “sworn” officers, meaning those who can carry a gun, have arrest power, and wear a badge; four in 10 private campuses did.

Colleges are generally safe places, but that can change in an instant, Randy Burba, who was until very recently the president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, the leading trade group for campus public-safety officers, told me. Campuses are both constituent parts of larger towns and cities and communities in their own right, with issues and quirks that those who police them should know well. If an active shooter were located on the third floor of an English building, a trained campus police force could respond quickly, know exactly how to get there, and also have some knowledge of layout of the building—knowledge the city police force might not have.

Campus police officers, he continued, face a similar set of issues that off-campus police forces experience. “It’s kind of like being prepared for an earthquake,” Burba says. “They tell you, ‘Nail your bookshelves to the wall.’” The earthquake may never come, but if it does, the precaution was worthwhile.

By the same coin, it only takes one error—say, a cellphone that is mistaken for a gun—on a campus police officer’s part for a tragedy to occur. Some have argued that the forces are a virtually unchecked power—often with jurisdictions that extend beyond the campus, as is the case at the University of Chicago—and should be abolished.

Further, as my colleague Vann Newkirk wrote last week, “In a country currently in the grip of what appears to be an overdue reckoning with its epidemic of gun violence, it’s worth noting that police shootings are also an epidemic of gun violence.” Arming more campus-security forces—broadening the group of people with guns policing college students—risks exacerbating an ongoing national crisis.

Still, Burba—far from suggesting that all campuses arm their police officers—notes that campuses must make decisions about arming security forces for themselves after assessing the dangers their institutions face.

Portland State University found itself grappling with such a decision in 2013. The top two reported crimes on campus at the time, according to federal data, were liquor-law violations and burglary, and the institution did not have an armed police force, only unarmed campus security officers. The institution’s president formed a task force to make recommendations to address safety concerns and “improve the response to criminal activity on campus.”

The university was facing a set of circumstances quite different from several decades ago. The campus now covers much more land than it did in the late ’70s. The number of buildings on campus has doubled since then, and so has the campus’s population. After several conversations with students, faculty, and staff across campus, the task force came to the conclusion that the college could do more to protect students, and that an armed campus police force would help do that—despite students being split on the idea.

“The most ideal campus safety staffing model is one that allows PSU access to dedicated professionals who are part of the PSU ethos and community, who have sworn police status,” the task force wrote in the final report. The armed police force was approved within a year, and was charged with monitoring the campus as well as its surroudings. (No data seems to be available on how often campus police officers discharge their weapon, so parsing the effectiveness—or need—of firearms in preventing crime on campus is difficult.)

Ever since the decision, student activists have been organizing to disarm the police force on campus. In 2016, students staged a walkout in protest. Similarly, after the killing of a student, Scout Schultz, by campus police at Georgia Tech last fall, the student union released a statement about the “dangers of armed forces on college campuses.”

College administrations are in a difficult position. To maintain armed security forces means to take on the risk that something will go terribly awry, that a student or someone else will be wrongly shot. But to not maintain armed security could mean that students and professors lack adequate protection. The current preference tends to be to arm campus police officers, but administrators may soon find that preference more untenable as the political dynamics around guns shift. One clue as to the contours of the debate ahead: Many colleges and universities have implied their support for emboldened high-school student activists—particularly those who have been vocal in support of gun control. Will those students find their administrations remain warm to their views once they arrive on campus?