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Arming University Police Departments Part 2: Best Practices and Lessons Learned

Conducting risk assessments, developing buy-in with stakeholders, developing memoranda of understanding with other agencies and training are some of the steps you’ll need to take when moving through this process.

Deciding to arm campus and university police forces is a complex process that involves much effort by the university and its police department to create and cement strong working relationships with staff, faculty, students, neighboring law enforcement agencies and community members. If such a process is not implemented successfully, it can produce conflict among the university community and its stakeholders. Universities must factor in the risks, costs, procedural changes and training requirements, while recognizing the concerns of the university students, staff, faculty and surrounding community.

However, guidance is limited on the considerations that should be factored into this decision-making process as well as on the implementation side should universities decide to arm their officers. Here’s a blueprint that includes issues and recommendations that universities should consider as they move through the process of arming their officers.

Assess, Decide, Plan, Train, Implement and Evaluate

Following are six steps that universities should take as they consider and/or implement armed officers. Key recommendations universities should consider are listed under each step.

1. Assess: Prior to developing and implementing new protective measures, it is important for campus law enforcement agencies to understand their current risk and threat environment. An assessment of the university’s risks and threats allows officials to begin to identify gaps in the school’s ability to respond to and recover from various incidents that can compromise campus safety.

Key recommendation:

Conduct a threat/risk assessment that reviews the full spectrum of threats and vulnerabilities. Threat/risk assessments should factor in a wide array of threats, such as natural, criminal, terrorist and accidental threats. Such an assessment should include university-specific details, like the size of the university, its crime rates, geographic location (e.g., urban, rural), and the number of officers employed. University officials and administrators who are considering arming their officers must also examine the additional risks involved with employing armed or unarmed officers.

2. Decide: Making a decision to arm officers must involve the active participation of university officials, public safety executives and representatives from neighboring law enforcement agencies. Arming officers may not always be the most appropriate protective measure, and decision-makers should consider viable alter natives in their discussions. Considerations such as past precedents, jurisdictional authority, campus dynamics, and the threat and vulnerability assessment results should also be part of the discussion and decision-making process.

Key recommendations:

Form a committee to review all topics related to arming university officers and to develop a report.The objective of this committee should be to produce a report that outlines available research on this topic, possible alternatives to arming, the risks of arming or not arming in relation to the threat assessment results, the costs associated with arming officers, and additional factors (e.g., campus dynamics, past precedents) in making the decision. The report should also include a recommendation on whether the university should arm or not arm, based on the information gathered.

This committee should include the university chief of police; representatives from the university’s safety and security office, student union, human resources, legal counsel, police union, and neighboring/local law enforcement agency; and members from the university faculty and staff.

Consider alternatives to arming officers. The committee should examine all alternatives to arming officers. For example, one alternative is locking guns in armories. Officers would be armed, but they would lock their firearms in their patrol cars or at their public safety headquarters. Another alternative is only assigning firearms to supervisory officers/executive command. The committee should consider such alternatives in the context of the threat assessment. Employing such alternatives must meet the public safety needs of the university and outweigh the risks and liabilities involved.

3. Plan and Prepare: If the decision to arm officers is approved, public safety officials and university executives should immediately begin to prepare the university and its community, as well as the officers within the university police department.

Key recommendations:

Meet with university staff, students and the neighboring community about upcoming changes. Communicating with the campus community can occur in many different forms; universities should consider holding focus groups, town hall meetings, webinars, panels or conferences throughout the process. These meetings should occur at regular intervals, or as often as the university sees fit. Participants in these meetings should include the student union, leaders of the faculty board, and members of the neighboring community or neighborhood advisory councils.

It is also important to note that introducing the campus community to such a change should be consistent with how the university introduces other programmatic changes. This will ensure that the community is not surprised with unfamiliar communication methods.

Meet with neighboring law enforcement agencies about the decision to arm campus police officers. Discussions with neighboring law enforcement agencies allow each agency to refine its roles and responsibilities as the university officers become armed. These discussions should include developing and/or updating memoranda of understanding (MOUs), critical incident or emergency plans, and standard operating procedures. They should also clearly define the jurisdictional authority of the newly armed university police force. Once completed, local law enforcement should share this MOU with all officers in the precincts and/or stations surrounding the university.

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