Should campus police be armed?

Recent murder indictment prompts debate

The fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a University of Cincinnati police officer during a routine traffic stop has sparked discussion nationwide about the role—and arming—of campus law enforcement. 

"I don't think a university should be in the policing business," said Joe Deters, the prosecutor in that case.

At least 44 states allow colleges to form their own police departments. Nearly all four-year institutions with more than 2,500 students in the 2011-2012 school year had their own, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey. Most of those officers carry guns, and 81% of the forces have agreements with local police giving them jurisdiction beyond campus limits.

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"Many people think of them as not real police dealing with inconsequential matters. Nothing could be further from the truth," says S. Daniel Carter, director of a VTV Family Outreach Foundation campus safety initiative. The organization was created in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Technological Institute (Virginia Tech) shooting that left 32 people and the assailant dead.

"I think many people don't appreciate just how important a role they have," Carter says.

Universities must balance the expectation that students are safe from outside threats and keeping the population out of trouble with neighboring residents. Campus police spread in popularity in the 1960s when universities lobbied for the right to create their own forces to reduce the violent clashes between local police and student protestors.

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Campus police go through the same training as their local peers and hold many of the same responsibilities, such as traffic stops.

"Most campuses don't have walls and fences. Anything that can happen anywhere in the community can happen on a campus," William Taylor, San Jacinto College police chief and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

And as with the local police, shootings do take place.

In February 2014, a San Jose University officer shot a man holding a saw, and the man's family has since sued the school.

In December 2013, a University of the Incarnate Word officer shot a man in the back and killed him. His family also has filed a lawsuit.

And last spring, Columbus University officers fatally shot a man loading a gun near a student housing complex.

"The single biggest thing that is happening now with the police is there must be better training in how to, number one, deal with people and, number two, defuse situations," says John Sloan III, a University of Alabama Birmingham professor of criminology and sociology. That is something that "campus police officers, city police officers, county sheriffs, transit police, port authority police" all need, he says (Nelson, Vox, 7/29; Svrluga et al., "Grade Point," Washington Post, 7/29; CNN, accessed 7/31).

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