There has always been a debate between Springfield College students, faculty and staff over whether or not Springfield College police officers should carry firearms while on patrol.
After the events two weeks ago, with two armed robberies of Springfield College students just off the border of campus by a group of men with a sawed-off shotgun, and other incidents over the last year, such as the on-campus robbery and assault of Professor of Psychology Derek Paar, the reality is clear.
Springfield College may be at a greater need to join the majority of United States colleges and universities with armed campus police officers.
According to Chief of Campus Police Judy Jackson however, the decision has already been made.
Jackson said that around the spring of 2009, President Richard B. Flynn approached the Springfield College Board of Trustees with the proposal of arming the campus’s police force.
“He [Flynn] told them he was in support of [arming the police officers] and he laid the groundwork for it,” Jackson said. “The board supported him, and there was a debate; let’s face it, there is always a debate with these kind of things. There’s always going to be a debate.”
Since then, Springfield College has been following standard procedures to prepare for arming its police officers. First, the college brought in an independent company to audit the Department of Public Safety. The extensive audit broke down the department’s strengths and weaknesses. It took over six months to complete and was finished by the end of the summer of 2010.
Last year, all of the Springfield College police officers underwent psychological testing, and during this past summer, the officers spent 40 hours at the Smith & Wesson shooting range in Springfield going through “intensive training.”
Along with arming the officers comes the responsibility of creating rules, regulations and use of force policies that the college worked on all summer. These policies are still being reviewed, according to Jackson. Springfield College already has a use of force policy, but this will need to be changed with officers gaining firearms.
One problem that has arisen for Springfield is that the independent audit stated the college needs an armory to keep its firearms.
“We need an armory because these officers will not be carrying [off duty]. They will leave their firearms here,” Jackson said. “We don’t have space for an armory [right now].”
Just down the road from campus, Western New England University has an armory and their police officers have been armed since July 11, 2005, according to the Western New England University Annual Firearms Report. The Student obtained the report from Western New England Director of Public Safety, Adam Woodrow.
“They have a room that is card accessed and has a camera,” Jackson said. “It is locked all the time, and they go in and get their firearms out of their locker and do everything there on-camera.”
Despite not having the space for another room currently, there are other options. One possibility the school is looking into are secure lockers, according to Jackson.
According to the Western New England report, a mandated annual report to the Western New England University Board of Trustees, for July 1, 2010 and ending June 30, 2011, “There have been no incidents of officers misusing their firearms or removing their firearms from their holsters for purposes other than loading, training, storage, and/or cleaning.”
American International College police officers do not carry firearms. They have mace and a baton.
According to Jackson, Amherst College officers have been armed for over 50 years. In the early ’90s, current Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Gary Berte served for three years as the Amherst College Chief of Police and is in favor of Springfield College arming its officers.
“I am totally in favor of them being armed if they are properly trained and supervised,” Berte said. “I think from a liability point of view or an insurance point of view, there is more cost to the college for having armed police officers; but at the same time, from a human quality of life issue, the sense of safety and security outweighs that, and it can possibly save lives.”
Berte surveyed his Introduction to Criminal Justice class and Constitutional Law class on the issue of whether campus police officers should have guns, and nearly 100 percent responded yes.
According to a 2004-2005 study of 750 campus law enforcement agencies by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, armed patrol officers were used at nearly nine in 10 agencies that employ sworn officers.
“There is the ultimate threshold where you’re sitting around the firehouse all day, and you get a call for a fire and you don’t have a fire engine to go,” Berte said. “Then what do you do?
“It’s an issue of saving lives,” he added. “It is a life safety issue just like fire alarms. We need to have the capacity to protect people’s lives when other people are willing to use deadly force. An example is the house off –campus.”
A small Springfield Student survey of 100 students indicated support towards cops being armed. Students Wednesday night were asked to respond to the following question: “Are you in favor of Springfield College police officers carrying a firearm?” Fifty-seven responded with a “yes,” 24 students answered “no and 19 answered “not sure.”
Senior Dom Corbett, who lives off-campus, is in favor of Springfield College police officers being armed as long as they go through the proper training.
“I would like to see them armed in some way because, with what happened two weekends ago, there are some situations where other people may have guns,” Corbett said. “And quite frankly, if I was one of the college cops, I wouldn’t want to be walking into a situation where someone has a gun in my face and I don’t have equal means.”
Student Government Association President Kristina Dupuis, speaking strictly on personal opinion, also is in favor of campus police officers being armed.
“I think that police officers should have guns on campus,” Dupuis said. “That is their only defense mechanism that can defend us against other gang members that have guns. What are they going to do with pepper spray and a [nightstick]?”
Graduate student Vanessa Rosario, who also spent her undergraduate years at Springfield College, sees both sides of the debate.
“I would be both for and against police being armed. I would be for it because SC is in a city that is unsafe and it would make students feel safer,” Rosario said. “On the other hand, I feel that some officers may use them to their advantage to threaten students and make them feel inferior.
For example, when parties are broken up at midnight and people don’t want to leave, officers may take their guns out or point them at students to make students feel inferior and do what they say.”
Jackson expressed confidence in her officers and their ability to use their better judgement.
All officers hired by the college are sworn Massachusetts Special State Police Officers under Massachusetts General Law CH. 22C S.63 and are required to attend the Special State Police Academy at the Massachusetts State Police Training facility in New Braintree.
Part of the thinking of course is to guard against on-campus tragedies, such as the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007.
“This has been going on for quite some time,” Jackson said. “I think it intensified with Virginia Tech. Law enforcement on colleges and universities has changed and has had to change with the world.”
“I think a lot of people used to believe colleges and universities were a safe [zone],” Jackson said. “The real world exists on a college campus, so we no longer can believe we’re living in a vacuum.”
Justin Felisko may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org