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KINGSTON — A decision to arm University of Rhode Island police officers was announced Monday after a year-long campus discussion with faculty, students, staff and others.
Although providing weapons to officers has been considered for a period of years, a renewed effort to engage the campus in a broad-based discussion on arming was initiated after an incident last year at Chafee Social Science Center.
In April 2013, a report of an individual with a gun in the Chafee center activated campus-wide emergency response operations. While the police investigation concluded there was no gun and the incident was never a threat to public safety, as part of the assessment, the arming of campus police was recommended as a way to improve the capabilities of the URI police as first responders to life-threatening emergency situations.
Officials note URI is the only public state university in the country with a police force where officers do not carry firearms. The overall crime rate, say police officials, would be comparable to a small city or town of 20,000 in populations where serious crimes do occur. The URI police are responsible for responding to and investigating all crimes that happen on campus, said its director, Chief Stephen N. Baker, of Westerly.
The gun scare incident brought a renewed focus to the fact that without firearms, URI police officers cannot respond directly to a threat of an active shooter. URI police officers responded within 40 seconds of the time of the call for help to dispatch, but waited outside the building for 5 minutes until South Kingstown police officers were on the scene. Since the tragedy at Columbine in 1999, the strategy is for police arriving at the scene of an active shooter to enter the building immediately and attempt to neutralize the threat.
At that time, Baker, once Westerly’s police chief, advocated strongly for officers who are Rhode Island Municipal Police Training Academy graduates, be equipped with firearms.
The initial one-time cost to arm campus police is estimated at $150,000, with ongoing annual costs estimated at about $23,000. The implementation plan will be made available to the campus community in May for review. It is anticipated the implementation plan will begin in June and all elements will be completed for the start of the 2015 spring semester. The Department of Public Safety will submit a department readiness report to the president for final issuance of firearms to the department at that time.
“Our foremost priority is the safety and security of every member of our community and we have taken many steps over the past year to enhance campus safety,” said URI President David M. Dooley. “Campus-wide discussions have provided critical feedback. In order to provide the safest environment possible and to ensure a timely response to any threat to the safety of our campuses, our police officers must be equipped properly to function as first responders.”
URI’s Department of Public Safety will develop an implementation plan to outline the policies, procedures, training, and other initiatives necessary to proceed with an effective and appropriate implementation. Authorities said preparation will include:
• Intensive training on use-of-force policies and procedures; decision-making on firearm use in a variety of situations; and University Community Based Policing;
• Substantive training and education on multicultural competency, mental illness awareness, and impartial police training;
• Additional psychological testing and background checks for eligible officers;
• Development of policies for review of all situations in which a firearm is drawn, pointed or discharged;
• Establishment of a URI Police Policy and Procedure Oversight Committee made up of faculty, staff, students and law enforcement.
Meetings will begin with the two current unions covering the collective bargaining agreements with the police officers to determine the best course of action for changing their job descriptions to include the carrying of firearms.