Crime Fight

By Zachary Block '99 / March / April 2002
July 1st, 2007
The robberies and assaults started during the first week of classes in the fall and resumed in January as students returned from semester break. They've occurred by day and by night, at gunpoint and at knifepoint. They've targeted both students and faculty, at Brown and at RISD. And in the process, they've created a growing sense of vulnerability around campus. "I can't remember the last time it's been this bad," says crime prevention officer Mark Perry, a twenty-year Brown police force veteran.

From September through mid-February, campus police reported some twenty-one robberies and assaults, surpassing the twelve such incidents logged during all of 2000 and equaling the twenty-one recorded in 1999. Meanwhile, robberies throughout Brown's East Side neighborhood dropped 7 percent last year, according to Providence Police Department statistics. "Criminals have figured out that Brown is fairly defenseless and therefore an easy target," says Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Donald Reaves, who is the senior administrator in charge of campus security.

University Hall has responded by adding an extra Brown police officer to the night shift, hiring four Providence police details to patrol the campus neighborhood after dark, and setting in motion a plan to hire five new campus officers within the next year. Student shuttle and escort services have also been expanded to serve faculty and staff, and a request has gone out to city officials to improve lighting on the streets around campus. In addition, the University has hired a team of consultants, led by former New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton, to study campus security and make additional recommendations.

The crime wave has also revived the debate over arming Brown police, but with one difference: the odds seem much better this time that the change will be made. In 1995, after students voted overwhelmingly against arming campus officers in a nonbinding referendum, then-President Vartan Gregorian decided - for the second time in three years - to maintain an unarmed police force. But the mood has since shifted. President Ruth Simmons seems to favor the idea, and even the Brown Daily Herald, which has long opposed arming campus police, has editorialized in favor of it this year. Although the paper has more recently waffled on the issue, the Undergraduate Council of Students voted in February to support arming the police.

The argument for allowing Brown officers to carry firearms is that thieves view the campus as fertile ground because campus police cannot respond to crimes in which weapons may be involved. Instead, the Providence police are called. This "nonengagement policy," Simmons said at a February 5 faculty meeting, "means [campus police] cannot come to our assistance when we need them most." She argued that the current practice is "completely untenable and completely unrealistic." Armed Brown police officers, proponents contend, could respond to all types of crimes, which would mean quicker intervention in the most serious incidents and a greater chance of catching their perpetrators. Supporters point out that the Brown police department is nationally accredited and that its officers attend the state's municipal police academy. Even now, Brown police keep ten .40-caliber, double-action semiautomatic Berettas locked in a safe.

Opponents, meanwhile, question the deterrent value of armed campus officers. "Having Providence Police officers in the area with guns hasn't deterred crime," says Matt Swagler '02, a member of the Coalition Against Guns at Brown. "I think it's an illusion people have that just giving cops guns will stop crime."

Others fear that a student might get shot. "I'm really worried about cops going to break up a party and guns being on their hips," Erik Churchill '03 told administrators at a February 12 forum on campus safety. "It's not that I don't trust the officers; I don't trust the situation."

Such students may have allies at the University of Rhode Island, which has been resisting an effort by state legislators to mandate armed officers on its rural campus. "I'm not sure that putting your own officers out there on patrol is going to prevent a lot," says Leo Carroll '74 Ph.D., a URI criminologist who chairs a task force examining security at the school. He views arming campus police as a step toward protecting the officers themselves rather than deterring crime.

Policies vary across the Ivy League. Police officers at Yale, for example, have carried guns since the department was created in 1894, according to spokesman Tom Violante. "It has never been an issue whether or not they should carry firearms," he says. By contrast, security personnel at Columbia do not carry guns despite the campus's Manhattan address. George Smartt, the school's assistant vice president for security, says that low levels of violent crime at Columbia and the rapid response of city police to campus crime make arming campus police there "superfluous at best and totally unnecessary, especially when you consider the cost of training and legal issues."

In a February interview Reaves said he could not predict when a decision will be made at Brown. If the police are eventually armed, he added, retraining the officers and establishing new police procedures would take six months or more. This means that any benefit won't be realized until the next academic year.

"There are going to be very tough choices to be made," Simmons told students at the February security forum. "We cannot keep putting it off. I can promise you, you will not be here next year and hear us debate this again."

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March / April 2002