A Green Light on Guns

By Zachary Block '99 / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007
After a decade of debate, it’s official: Brown police will begin carrying guns within eighteen months. “Making the choice to arm our campus police officers is not something that any member of the senior administration takes lightly,” President Ruth Simmons wrote in a December 1 e-mail announcing the decision to the Brown community. “I know many will be unable to embrace this decision. It is, however, our firm belief that it’s the most prudent course to assure the safety of the campus.”

Despite vociferous opposition in the past, student reaction to the announcement was muted. Only seven students attended a forum on the change, and at a subsequent meeting of the Undergraduate Council of Students a proposal to revoke on-campus parking privileges seemed to generate more concern. (The UCS endorsed arming in November 2002.)

The loudest objections came from off-campus. Providence Mayor David Cicilline ’83 and City Councilman David Segal, whose district includes Brown, called on Simmons to rethink the move, as did the Providence Journal. “I believe strongly that arming university officers will not enhance the safety of your students,” Cicilline wrote in a letter to Simmons. “Instead it will unnecessarily inject additional firearms into our city.”

The decision affects Brown’s thirty-three police officers, but not its eighteen campus security guards, who will remain unarmed. (The officers are trained at the state’s municipal police academy; the security guards are not.) According to Vice President of Administration Walter Hunter, before they can carry weapons, officers will undergo 200 hours of additional training, not only in firearms safety and proper use of force, but also in such areas as racial profiling, race and cultural awareness, and conflict resolution and persuasion. Officers will also undergo additional psychological testing and background checks, and a new board of faculty, students, and staff will review the investigation of any complaints against campus police officers. Hunter said Brown is also studying the possible deployment of such nonlethal weapons as tasers.

Debated for years, the arming issue came to the forefront after an outbreak of armed robberies and assaults in and around campus during the fall of 2001. Brown responded by hiring a group of consultants led by Los Angeles police chief William Bratton to study campus security. The Bratton group criticized current University policy that requires campus police to withdraw from situations that might involve a violent or armed perpetrator and call in the Providence police. The consultants argued that armed campus officers could respond more quickly to violent crimes, thereby making campus safer.

Eight days after Simmons’s announcement, the city opened a community-policing substation in a Brown-owned mini-mall a block from campus-police headquarters. The University spent $70,000 to renovate the space, which it is leasing to the city for free. “We see that as a way of enhancing communication between us and the police,” Hunter says. “We don’t see neighborhood policing as a substitute for the need to make sure that our officers engage in the additional policing roles that were recommended by our consultants. It’s just a much more dangerous world than it used to be.”

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Related Issue
January / February 2004