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.