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URI split on arming of campus police

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — The University of Rhode Island’s plan to arm campus police is drawing mixed reviews from students and faculty, with some saying it’s long overdue and others who fear it will lead to more violence at the school, the nation’s only public university where campus police do not carry firearms.

President David Dooley’s decision announced last week comes a year after a scare at the school, where students in a lecture hall on the main campus thought they heard someone say he or she had a gun. That set off a panic and a campuswide lockdown before police concluded there was no gun and no shooter.

Dooley and others argued that the incident showed that URI police would be at a considerable disadvantage if someone brought a gun to campus and started shooting. It took around five minutes for armed police officers from South Kingstown to arrive at the building. In the meantime, campus officers had to wait outside.

Jacob Wilson, 21, a senior fisheries science major, was in the Chafee Social Science Center when the panic was set off, and was evacuated along with other students. He says he thinks it’s ridiculous that campus police go through the same training as other police officers yet are not allowed to carry guns.

“With today’s world, I just feel like it makes sense for them to have that extra caution,” he said. “If you’re putting them in the right hands, then I don’t understand why everyone would be so worried.”

The university is now working on policies, including those governing the use of force. Weapons training is expected to start in the coming months, with every officer required to go through a two-week firearms training with the state police, Director of Public Safety Stephen Baker said. He expects all the preparations will be in place for officers to carry guns by the next spring semester.

Emily Cotter and James Given, both seniors majoring in sustainable agriculture, said they feel safe the way things are now and questioned the need for campus police to have guns.

According to data provided by URI, there were just two arrests for weapons violations made on all four of the school’s campuses from 2010 through 2012. There were about two dozen reports of aggravated assault and robbery on the four campuses in that period, as well as 42 reports of forcible sex offenses.

“I understand the proposition that you have to be armed to defend yourself against armed people. I’m not saying there’s never going to be an armed person on campus,” Cotter said. “I’m not saying that I don’t trust the URI police officers. But I know of instances on campuses across this country where students have been shot by police officers. In my opinion, I feel like that’s a more likely scenario.”

That concern is among those shared by faculty members, including the faculty senate, which voted last year to keep the campus gun-free, and the URI chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the union that represents around 700 faculty members.

Frank Annunziato, executive director of the professors association, said its executive committee would meet today to discuss further steps, including a possible vote to express its opposition. Annunziato also questions its cost. URI says the initial one-time cost is estimated at $150,000, with ongoing annual costs estimated at about $23,000.

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