Campus police increasingly armed, even as crime rates fall

Critics worry trend could lead to new problems

Campus police departments are increasingly procuring surplus military equipment and arming officers, despite falling crime and concern from critics that new, heavier weapons bring new dangers.

According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report released Tuesday, 75% of campus police offers were armed during the 2011-2012 school year. That is up from 68% in 2004-2005, the last time BJC conducted an analysis. The most recent report surveyed a mix of 900 public and private universities.

Overall, public universities were significantly more likely to have officers with full police powers, with 92% reporting they did, compared with 38% of private schools.

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Preparing for the worst

Campus safety officials at both types of institutions say recent shootings and other emergencies have created more pressure on them to have a strong campus presence.

"It's an evolution. Low probability, high-impact incidents like the violent situation at Virginia Tech obviously loom large in everyone's thinking, but that’s not the only issue," says Steven Healy, a former public safety director at Princeton University. "Do you want your own department to be able to respond to the full range of threats?”

For some schools, being prepared means procuring surplus military equipment through the Pentagon's 1033 Program. More than 100 campus police departments have received items ranging from assault rifles to armor-plated vehicles.

Florida State University (FSU), which experienced a shooting this school year, recently received a Humvee. FSU Police Chief David Perry says the vehicle is useful not only for such emergencies, but also for responding to severe weather and as "a community-building tool to help educate people about what we do."

But is it necessary?

However, critics warn that by making a show of force with assault rifles and military vehicles, police only end up amplifying tensions with the communities they serve. For example, some say the recent Ferguson, Missouri, unrest was escalated by the police's choice to deploy military equipment, and is evidence that colleges and universities should proceed cautiously before equipping their own officers.

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Trevor Burrus, a researcher at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, says there is a "demonstrative track record of police changing how they behave when they have these weapons." He notes that campuses are relatively safe, and "we don’t need any more of this distrust between students and faculties in college situations."

The BJS report shows that violent campus crime is decreasing. The rate of violent crime dropped 27% between 2004 and 2011. Over the same time, the rate of property crime dropped even more, by 35%.

Nevertheless, Perry acknowledges that schools are facing unusual new threats. "We can't ignore the tragic shootings that have taken place on public campuses and in public arenas, and in those instances the bad guys aren't using revolvers, they are using semi-automatic weapons," he says (AP/The Guardian, 1/20; Howell, Washington Times, 1/20).

The takeaway: Campus police are increasingly well armed and empowered to make arrests, but critics argue they should be mindful of how those changes affect their relationship with the community.

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