The Lethal Question: To Arm or Not to Arm?

These eight considerations can help college and university officials rethink this age-old dilemma.
Published: October 13, 2014

College officials often weigh whether they should use lethal or less-lethal weapons. Post Virginia Tech, some of the campus security and police departments that traditionally have not been armed are revisiting this topic. 

But, let’s face it: a Virginia Tech-style incident is statistically a rare occurrence, and a side arm will most likely not prevent or stop an active shooter incident from occurring. Other violent incidents, such as domestic disputes, calls with knives involved, and physical arguments are on the rise. The possession of a lethal weapon by a campus public safety officer might be the only way to mitigate a large portion of those incidents where no other option is available.

Below are some key considerations campus administrators must review when looking at this hot topic. It is important to understand, however, that a decision as serious as arming or not arming a police or security force will have consequences regardless of what path is chosen.

Something will happen and a department will be tested. When it does get tested, the institution must be ready with the justification for its decision. The question comes down to which path is most practical and also leads to the least amount of risk, not the absence of risk.

——Article Continues Below——

Get the latest industry news and research delivered directly to your inbox.

1. Past Precedents

Evaluating the legal aspects is a relatively straightforward process. Oftentimes, courts will refer to past precedents and look at what can be reasonably expected of a similar institution. Therefore, start by researching practices at other institutions of similar size, type and makeup within your state and across the nation. 

Are your practices consistent with a majority of these institutions? Even if your institution is in the minority, it doesn’t mean you are wrong. In fact, being in the majority doesn’t mean it’s right either. This is, however, one of the first items a plaintiff’s investigators would review. Being able to justify your practices using this and other considerations in this framework is vital.

2. Training and Other Standards

Col. Mark J. Porter, chief of police at Brown University, recommends administrators place a high priority on training. “Training is the biggest necessity regardless of the situation (armed or unarmed),” he says. 

Training should also be considered relative to the type of officers you have on campus:

  • Nonsworn Officers/Contract Security: This is arguably the category with the least amount of armed personnel, although these types of departments do exist. If you have nonsworn officers, their use of weapons will more than likely be heavily regulated by a state, regional, county or local agency, code or law and should be researched very carefully. Laws or codes may allow limited use of weapons or they may have special requirements.
    In addition, if the use of a weapon is ever challenged in court, training standards could be targeted. Armed nonsworn officers require a carefully monitored initial training program and continuing education. Many government and private organizations even offer security academies for these individuals.

    It should be noted that if the college or university hires a private contractor to provide this service, the university is not immune from liability resulting from its actions. The administration should check to see what training and operational standards are in place, what procedures it has and how incidents are reported, documented and resolved.

    Generally speaking, most experts agree that if a university is looking to arm its officers, it might be better to convert to a police department or obtain peace officer status first. A benefit to converting would mean that if an incident is reviewed in court, an institution would not have to struggle to justify unique or proprietary training standards. Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) would kick in and past precedents would be the institution’s friend.

    Arming nonsworn officers may have its merit but warrants a much closer look since this can be a tricky scenario. For this and other reasons, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) advises against the use of non-commissioned personnel to “question, detain, or restrain the movement of citizens.”

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series