PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Campus police officers insisted to lawmakers Wednesday night that they need to carry firearms to do their jobs, even as administrators from the colleges opposed giving guns to their safety officers.
The House Judiciary Committee is considering legislation to mandate the arming of campus police, which would be a change from the current law that allows campus police forces to carry guns but leaves it up to each college or university to decide.
“You’re basically asking me to go to a gunfight without a gun,” said George Pearson, a retired Providence Police officer who now works as a campus police officer at Rhode Island College. “You’re asking me to protect these people when in fact, I can’t.”
A spokesperson for the union that represents RIC officers, Council 94 Local 2878, said all RIC officers are retired sworn police officers who once carried guns on the job.
“We have a flashlight,” Pearson said of his current equipment.
If passed, the mandate would make changes to the police forces at Rhode Island College and the Community College of Rhode Island, as the University of Rhode Island already arms its police.
URI made the decision to arm campus officers in 2015 after a 2013 scare that turned out to be a false alarm, but illuminated the time it takes for municipal police departments to respond to the Kingston campus.
RIC President Frank Sanchez testified in opposition to the bill, telling the committee the response times from Providence and North Providence Police are typically under three minutes, and faster if an officer is nearby.
“The response time to our campus is extremely fast,“ Sanchez said.
But North Providence Democrat Rep. William O’Brien, who introduced the bill, says in a potential active shooter situation, every second counts.
“God forbid something happens where we have an active shooter situation, the only thing that prevents and stops it is an armed security officer,” O’Brien said.
“There will be students that will be shot,” Pearson said, describing an ominous scenario in which an active shooter could be on campus, police still on their way. “We’ll probably be shot as well, because we’re not armed.”
“I’m convinced it is not necessary at this time,” Sanchez said, asserting that students and staff generally oppose the idea. “Numerous students, faculty and staff on our campus have expressed elevated feelings of anxiety, fear, and stress when presented with the possibility of arming our campus police officers.”
In written testimony, CCRI Vice President of Administration Alix Ogden said CCRI has “determined that arming our police is not consistent with the goals of our policing program set within our college.”
Ogden said CCRI recently equipped its officers with batons and pepper spray, which she called the “appropriate level of non-lethal force for our college community.”
She said most safety officers at CCRI are also retired police officers.
A spokesperson for the Postsecondary Commissioner, which oversees the state’s public college system, said the commissioner is also opposed to the bill, believing that each college or university should determine whether or not to arm its officers.
A number of RIC students also testified against arming officers, expressing they feared lethal force would be used by officers on campus.
“If your intention with this bill is to protect all students, arming [officers] with guns is not the way to do that,” said student Nate Banks.
A man who was arrested for allegedly causing a disturbance at a RIC library two days ago, Rahim Caldwell, also told the committee he thought he might have been shot by a campus security officer during the incident if the officer had been armed.
Rep. O’Brien said he plans to propose an amendment to the bill that would incorporate the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights, a provision that protects police during investigations that may rise from their actions while on duty.