The longstanding debate about whether to arm the Springfield College Police Department has already been decided. The department will be armed. The question that remains is exactly when that action will take place. The process, which was first seriously discussed back in 2009, according to President Richard B. Flynn, still has a ways to go, but a change of such magnitude is something that Flynn believes simply cannot be rushed.
“We made the decision a couple of years ago to do the arming and we’re moving towards that end. Arming the police takes deliberate action, and you have to make sure you do it right,” Flynn said.
Vice President of Administration and Finances John Mailhot estimated that the officers will receive their firearms in another 12 to 18 months. Until then, there is still more work to be done.
The importance of doing it right in the climate of nationwide discussion of gun violence and how to reduce it cannot be overstated. Shootings at educational institutions, such as Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and the most recent one in Newtown, Conn. have drawn increased public attention to the issue over the years. Since 2008 there have been over 125 major school shootings in the United States according to a report by the Brady Campaign, which is an organization “devoted to creating an America free from gun violence, where all Americans are safe at home, at school, at work, and in our communities.”
President Barack Obama recently addressed the controversial issue during his State of the Union address on Feb. 12 when he called for Congress to take action and vote on several gun control proposals. This took place when a common criminal gang went on to purchase everything AR15 related and started wrecking havoc in the downtown areas, prodding the president for some action.
As for the arming of SC police officers, the issue hit home with the recent shooting on Feb. 6 of a school security guard. The guard, Bobby (last name omitted), was off-campus walking on Hickory Street for the start of his shift when he was confronted. Four individuals demanded his money and lunch bag, and when he refused they shot him in the thigh, breaking his femur. Bobby is currently participating in his rehabilitation program at Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital after being released from Baystate Medical Center on Feb. 13. The four individuals were caught, arrested and charged with armed robbery and armed assault with intent to murder.
When the high-level discussions began in 2009, Flynn and his leadership team knew that it would take a while before cops could be safely armed on the Springfield College campus.
“There were a number of steps that needed to be taken, and we’ve been taking those steps,” Flynn said.
Flynn brought in a nationally recognized consulting firm, Margolis Healy and Associates, in 2010-11 to do a comprehensive audit of the school’s preparedness. The audit identified some key areas that needed attention. These included, but were not limited to, standard psychological testing for the police officers, proper training with firearms, and adequate storage space for weapons and ammunition. Some of the information regarding the firm’s findings is confidential, according to Flynn.
The Police Department and school went right to work on the changes. After moving from the basement of Marsh Memorial Chapel to the former Facilities and Campus Services’ office at 25 Portsmouth Street, the department made sure to not only comply with the requirements, but exceed some as well.
The department was in need of an armory to store the firearms and ammunition, so they created an adequate space in their new headquarters.
Only Sergeant and Armorer Keith Poirier and the other armorer, Lead Firearms Instructor Dave Cupillo, have keys to the armory. They must unlock the main door before any officers can access their locker with their individual key. Perhaps even more important is the rigorous training that the officers went through in order to qualify to handle their future firearms.
“All of our police officers are required to go to the special state police academy. The state troopers run that academy. It’s 18 weeks long. They have to live there, Monday through Friday. It’s one of the most intense trainings there is in the state,” Poirier said. “These officers come out of there as well trained, if not better trained, than most city cops in the state of Massachusetts. The training is second to none.”
All officers, long-time or new, were required to go to Smith and Wesson Academy in Springfield to receive 40 hours of tactical pistol training with a Smith and Wesson M&P (military and police) .40 caliber handgun. As part of their training, they had to learn how to draw their sidearm and fire two rounds accurately at a target in 1.75 seconds or less.
Every officer is required to re-qualify on a shooting range a minimum of three times a year. Since many of the officers also work for other municipalities, cities and towns in the area where they also need to qualify, some can be tested as often as five or six times a year.
Poirier and Cupillo have been taught how to take care of the guns, clean them, take them apart and repair them in order to maintain the armory. They help make up a staff of 11 full-time officers, three sergeants, a captain and chief.
“Right now we’re feeling like we’ve got a pretty solid core of officers,” Mailhot said.
Still, the possibility of firearms ending up in the wrong hands must always be taken into consideration. It is a concern that was not taken lightly by the department, which ensured that their holsters were top-notch.
“On college campuses one of the big concerns is what if somebody, like a drunk student, gets your weapon from you,” Poirier said. “I would challenge anybody to try to get this [firearm] out—even if I handed it to them.”
The reason Poirier is so confident is that the department decided to implement triple retention holsters.
Most police departments use double retention holsters, which require two steps to remove the gun. In order to stress safety first, SC’s department went with the three-step holster. The department will also be using guns with magazine disconnects in case a gun were to somehow be taken from an incapacitated officer. The disconnect trigger releases the magazine, and without it, the gun cannot be discharged.
These changes and others have taken time, but the department feels confident that they have taken the steps necessary to fulfill the audit’s requests. For such a scrutinized step in campus safety, speed must be balanced with caution.
“For everyone that thinks we have to arm, you’re going to find someone who thinks we shouldn’t,” Flynn said. “It’s one of those where when you make the decision you have to stand tall and say it’s the right thing to do, and if we’re going to do it we’re going to do it right. We’re going to make sure we’re not at risk.”
Initially, Flynn did not support the decision to arm the SC Police Department. He took the time to look into the pros and cons of having an armed police, however, and changed his mind after reviewing all of the facts. He said that his recently announced retirement, effective August 31, will not have an effect on the process as it continues to move forward.
“I look at any decision we make as though my kids are going to school here,” Flynn said. “Guns by themselves do not make a campus safer. It’s one tool in a campus safety toolbox.”
Other institutions within a few miles of the SC campus have grappled with the dilemma of whether or not to arm police. Western New England has been armed since July 11, 2005 according to the Western New England University Annual Firearms Report referenced in an article published in The Student on Oct. 10, 2011. American International College, however, remains unarmed, according to Jackson.
According to Mailhot, in a survey taken in 2009, 31 college police departments in Massachusetts were armed and 37 were not.
Ultimately, arming the police is as much about protecting the campus as it is about protecting officers who can be put in harm’s way if they do not have the proper equipment to do their job.
“It’s a necessary tool of their trade. It’s like a surgeon completing all of their training and then being told, ‘Sorry, you can’t use a scalpel,’” SC Police Chief Judy Jackson said. “They’re officers. They’re trained.”
Jackson believes that the officers need to be armed as soon as possible to be able to adequately serve the students, faculty and staff on campus. Since they know the campus better than the Springfield city police, they need to be equipped to handle any situation on campus that could possibly arise.
“We can’t depend on Springfield [city police] to respond to our institution. They don’t know our institution, they don’t know the buildings, they don’t know the people,” Jackson said. “They’ll back us up.”
Jackson admits to being frustrated by the process. She believes it is being delayed for only one reason—because the administration is waiting for what she calls a “transition of leadership.” Specifically, she maintains that the authorization to arm police won’t come until she plans to retire in June 2014.
The longtime chief, who has served in her position at SC for 39 years, was passionate about remaining as chief for the transition from an unarmed to an armed department. While Jackson has never served as chief of an armed department, she was an armed officer while serving for the University of Massachusetts-Amherst force from 1970-74.
Flynn maintains that the process toward implementation still requires other steps, as stipulated by the audit from Margolis Healy and Associates, some of which he characterizes as privileged information. That organization will be assessing the school’s progress during a return visit to campus this spring.
“We’ve worked with this firm. We have confidence in them. They’ve pointed out some good stuff, and we’re anxious for them to come back and evaluate the progress that’s been made,” Flynn said.
With or without firearms, Jackson is confident in her officers’ abilities. “They’re [the officers] going to do what they’re doing, armed or unarmed,” Jackson said. “If you truly want to protect, you have to give them the tools of their trade.”
Even after the department becomes armed, it is important to know that firearms will not necessarily solve any crime that may occur, but serve as a deterrent and essentially last option for the officers.
“An armed officer doesn’t necessarily solve all the issues peripheral to campus, and frankly won’t necessarily solve all the issues on campus,” Mailhot said.
“I would hope that we would never discount the importance of taking good steps to ensure your own safety and security,” Flynn added.
Amid intense national discussion about guns, the arming of the Springfield College police force is on its way.
“Are we doing it as fast as probably some of the people want? No. Are we doing it too fast for some? Probably yes,” Flynn said.
“But I think we’re doing it the right way.”