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Rhode Island has long struggled with whether to arm its police on public college campuses.
In January, state Sen. Glenford J. Shibley introduced legislation that would allow officers who patrol the campuses of the state’s three public institutions -- the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the Community College of Rhode Island -- to carry guns as long as they go through the requisite training.
"Rhode Island is the only state where officers at state-supported institutions carry out their duties unarmed," said a General Assembly news release issued on the Coventry Republican’s behalf, announcing the introduction of his bill on Dec. 9.
At a hearing Feb. 28 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Shibley repeated that statement, according to a Journal story, and expressed frustration with the state’s inaction on arming campus police.
"What’s the holdup?" he said. "Who’s waiting for what tragedy?"
Shibley’s claim intrigued us. Does the Ocean State really stand alone when it comes to allowing police on public campuses to carry guns?
Let’s begin with some history. The Board of Governors for Higher Education first considered arming campus police at Rhode Island’s public institutions in 2000. URI conducted its own study two years later but decided that the time wasn’t right to make the move.
In 2003, Brown -- a private institution -- decided to arm its police officers. Three years later, after the university’s sworn officers each received training in diversity, weapons and use-of-force, they were armed with semiautomatic pistols.
The state Board of Governors formed a committee in 2008 to take another look at arming campus police in the wake of the 2007 killing of 32 people at Virginia Tech by a lone gunman, and other shootings at schools elsewhere in the country.
In its March 22, 2010, report, the committee said that it had reached consensus that the Board of Governors should consider a plan to arm campus police at one or more of Rhode Island’s public institutions. But no action has been taken since then.
When we called Shibley, a former police officer and assistant director of Rhode Island’s municipal police academy, he said he made the claim about the state’s singular status based on a fact sheet provided by Lt. Charles P. Wilson, a former police chief in Ohio, now the third shift patrol supervisor at the campus police department at Rhode Island College.
The fact sheet states, "Where legislation enabling campus law enforcement is concerned, only [Rhode Island] has language which specifically restricts campus police from carrying firearms."
Shibley urged us to contact Wilson, who, he said, had carried out years of research on the arming of campus police.
Fifteen years, to be precise, said Wilson, who with his wife, Shirley A. Wilson, an associate professor of management at Bryant University, has written academic papers on general attitudes toward campus law enforcement and opposition to arming campus law enforcement.
He sent a spreadsheet he compiled on law enforcement agencies at 2,050 four-year educational institutions around the country. The spreadsheet, which he said took three months to compile, was based on information gleaned from school web sites, correspondence with individual campus police officers, state and federal reports and some 200 phone calls. He said he plans to use the spreadsheet as the basis of a research paper.
Wilson divided the schools according to whether they are private or public and also according to whether they have their own police officers on campus or instead use security guards. The latter is an important distinction. Campus police officers generally go through the same training as municipal police officers and learn how to safely handle guns. Security guards do not necessarily receive firearms training.
Rhode Island’s public educational institutions all use campus police officers. All officers are trained in firearms as part of mandatory training at the municipal police academy.
Of the 2,050 schools Wilson surveyed, 712 have police officers instead of security guards only. Of that number, 693 -- or 97 percent -- allow their officers to carry guns.
We asked Wilson about Shibley’s claim. He told us that for years, three states were often cited as prohibiting their campus police officers from carrying guns: Rhode Island, Iowa and Oregon.
But Iowa and Oregon have reversed their policies in recent years.
The Iowa Board of Regents approved firearms for campus police on Oct. 31, 2007. Within two weeks, the police officers at Iowa State University were armed.
And in Oregon last October, the state Board of Higher Education allowed the University of Oregon to convert public safety officers into full-fledged police who would be able to carry guns.
But it’s important to note that campus police officers at the university currently are not armed. Wilson expects them to be issued firearms by the end of this year, but the school still needs approval from the Oregon Board of Higher Education to take that step.
The only published survey we found that looked at firearms and campus law enforcement was done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. The bureau released its most recent survey in February 2008. It was based on information collected about 750 four-year schools in 2004 and 2005.
The survey supported Shibley’s premise -- that the majority of colleges that use police officers allow them to carry arms -- but it’s outdated and does not break out its results on a state-by-state basis.
Shibley said that Rhode Island is the only state that doesn’t arm the police officers at its public educational institutions.
While Brown armed its officers six years ago, URI, CCRI and RIC haven’t followed suit.
The vast majority of U.S. schools that have police officers let them carry guns. That’s a fact confirmed by the U.S. Department of Justice and by Wilson, the RIC police supervisor.
Wilson is the only researcher we could locate who has broken down the issue by state, and according to his findings, Rhode Island is the lone hold out when it comes to allowing police at public schools to carry arms.
But even though campus police in Oregon are allowed by law to carry guns, they are not carrying guns yet. That’s an important detail that Wilson accounted for in the fact sheet he gave Shibley.
By glossing over this point, Shibley’s aim was slightly off the bull’s-eye, but he didn’t miss the target altogether. We rate the statement Mostly True.
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The Providence Journal, "Arming campus police discussed," Feb. 29, 2012, accessed Feb. 29, 2012
RILIN.State.RI.US, "An act relating to education -- Maintenance of order on campus," Rhode Island General Assembly, introduced Jan. 11, 2012, accessed March 2, 2012
RILIN.State.RI.US, "Sen. Shibley to introduce legislation allowing campus cops to carry guns," Rhode Island General Assembly, Dec. 9, 2011, accessed March 2, 2012
RIBGHE.org, "Report of the Campus Security Commission to the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education," March 22, 2010, accessed March 2, 2012
Interview, Glenford J. Shibley, Rhode Island state senator, March 2, 2012
Interview and e-mails, Lt. Charles P. Wilson, third-shift patrol supervisor, Rhode Island College Police Department, Feb. 29 - March 2, 2012
"Campus Arming," Lt. Charles P. Wilson, accessed March 1, 2012
Professional Issues in Criminal Justice, "Perceived Roles of Campus Law Enforcement: A Cognitive Review of Attitudes and Beliefs of Campus Constituents," Lt. Charles P. and Shirley A. Wilson, 2011, accessed March 1, 2012
Campus Law Enforcement Journal, "Debunking the Myths: An Evaluation of Opposition to the Arming of Campus Law Enforcement Officers in Rhode Island," Lt. Charles P. Wilson and Shirley A. Wilson, March/April 2011, accessed March 1, 2012
"Facts Regarding Campus Law Enforcement," Lt. Charles P. Wilson, accessed Feb. 29, 2012
Archive.Inside.IA.State.edu, "Inside Iowa State," Nov. 16, 2007, accessed March 2, 2012
OregonLive.com, "University of Oregon gets okay for safety officers to be full-fledged police," The Oregonian, Oct. 7, 2011, accessed March 2, 2012
BJS.OJP.USDOJ.gov, "Campus Law Enforcement 2004-05," Bureau of Justice Statistics," February 2008, accessed March 1, 2012
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