Many Colleges Have Armed Police Squads, But Are They Worth The Risk?

July 30, 2015

American college campuses are increasingly patrolled by armed police officers — and it’s a trend that burst into public view Wednesday, when a University of Cincinnati officer was charged with murdering a black motorist during a traffic stop. But this arming of college cops is causing some worries.

When Prosecutor Joe Deters announced the indictment of University of Cincinnati officer Ray Tensing on Wednesday, he had harsh words about the officer’s competence, saying he should never have been a cop.

But then he said that, “the university does a great job educating people and that should be their job. Being police officers shouldn’t be the role of this university. I don’t think so.”

The University of Cincinnati is hardly unusual in having its own armed police. About 32,000 people work in security on college campuses, and about half of those are sworn officers, who carry a weapon and have full powers of arrest. And that proportion is rising, says John Roman, of the Urban Institute.

“More campuses are arming their law enforcement and most of those officers carry sidearms, pepper spray and a baton,” says Roman, who has been studying law enforcement on campuses. He says the trend is being driven by fears of mass shooting events.

“A lot of this is a reaction to these very rare events, like the Virginia Tech shooting, yes, absolutely,” he adds.

But, statistically speaking, mass shootings are rare, and Roman says you have to consider the trade-off you’re making for the new risk created by the gun in the holster of a campus cop such as Ray Tensing.

“Because he was armed he completely overreacted and it ends up with what has been ruled as a murderer and if he’s not armed that can’t happen,” Romans says.

But David Mitchell, the chief of police at the University of Maryland, doesn’t accept this calculus. He says, first off, active shootings do happen on campuses.

“So the question is, if that is a threat — and believe me, it is a threat — what is our response capability?” he asks. “If you just have security that are unarmed and not trained to handle that type of threat, the time frame for your response is going to be much much longer than it would be otherwise.”

And as to the broader question raised by prosecutor Joe Deters — about whether whether a university should even have a police department — Mitchell says that’s shortsighted, too. He says policing a campus is specialized work — imagine handling thousands of exuberant kids on game day.

“It requires a lot of patience, it requires a lot of calmness, it requires a lot of professionalism,” he says. “We’re best to do that here, it’s a niche pocket in police that we do and we do well.”

And on this point, John Roman at the Urban Institute agrees. Campus police make sense, he says, he’s just worried about arming them, especially when they don’t get the kind of regular refresher training in weapon use that city cops get, and then they patrol city streets near campus.

In Cincinnati, the University has now pulled its officers back off those streets, and President Santa Ono pledges reform.

“We are fully committed to doing anything, even retraining officers, so that we can be really a model of public safety from a university setting,” Ono said on Wednesday.

But he did not entertain the possibility of disbanding his department, even as the mayor of Cincinnati, standing right next to him, said his city police department would be capable of taking over the job.

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