Bill to arm campus police draws mixed reaction at RIC, CCRI
The 23 sworn campus police officers at Rhode Island College carry only pepper spray. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
When Community College of Rhode Island freshman Kingston DaLomba, 18, was asked about a bill to arm campus police officers at his school, his reaction was swift.
“No,” the Warwick resident said. “I feel safe at CCRI. Being a person of color, I wouldn’t feel safe if police were armed here.”
But DaLomba would have to become accustomed to the idea if H5299 were to become law. The bill sponsored by Rep. William O’Brien of North Providence would mandate arming campus police at CCRI and Rhode Island College (RIC) and providing weapons training by October 2023. It would also legally declare police on the campuses “law enforcement officers,” making them subject to the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights.
The University of Rhode Island, located in North Kingstown, has had armed campus police since 2015.
A quick response from campus police could save lives should a mass shooting event happen, said O’Brien, who spoke during a House Judiciary Committee hearing Monday where the legislation was one of 27 focused on firearms up for discussion. The bill was held for further study.
“Municipal police cannot guarantee a rapid response,” O’Brien said.
As recorded by the Gun Violence Archive, there were 154 mass shootings recorded in the U.S. in 2023 as of Tuesday, April 18.
Neither school’s administration took a stance on the legislation, but they voiced concerns about training and resources to implement the new policies.
Currently, the 19 sworn officers at CCRI have access to batons and pepper spray. The 23 sworn officers at RIC carry only pepper spray. Both agencies possess the power of arrest.
There are 26 sworn officers on the University of Rhode Island police force, of which 25 are armed.
A 2019 survey by the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators found that 199 private colleges and universities in the 50 states and District of Columbia had sworn personnel. Of those, 95% were armed forces. No private institutions in 24 states had police forces.
The most recent survey by the U.S. Department of Justice on campus security, published in 2015, found that 75% of all university campus police forces in the 2004-2005 school year were armed. A contract for a survey focused on 2021 was issued in 2019.
In written testimony offered to the House Judiciary Committee, CCRI President Meghan Hughes expressed similar worries.
“We recognize there are many different models for campus policing in higher education,” she wrote in testimony dated April 17, 2023. “In consideration of the operational requirements and our commitment to a transparent college engagement strategy, I respectfully offer to have my team work with the sponsor to address our concerns, including the compressed timeline for implementation of the legislation.”
Major Joseph Hopkins, acting chief of the Community College of Rhode Island Police, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Rhode Island College Police Department deferred to school administration when asked for comment.
“We have identified some concerns with the logistics of successful implementation,” Rhode Island College spokesman John Taraborelli said in an email. “The concerns are around training, timelines for implementation and HR processes involved in arming officers.”
Erik Christiansen, president of the faculty union at RIC, said the school’s location on the Providence-North Providence line offers easy access to the police forces in both municipalities if an emergency occurred.
“We are not on a rural campus like URI, far from municipal police,” Christiansen said in written testimony he forwarded to Rhode Island Current. “RIC has not just one, but two local police forces that can be on campus in minutes.”
The Community College of Rhode Island has four campuses in Warwick, Providence, Newport, and Lincoln.
Christiansen added that decision makers should take RIC’s reputation as a school serving students of color into account.
“As a designated Hispanic Serving Institution, with a large number of students of color, we are also concerned about the effect that guns on campus would have on students’ mental health and their sense of well-being,” he said.
“Many students have expressed to us that they would not feel comfortable being forced to interact with armed police on their campus.”
The CCRI Faculty Association declined to comment.
Many students have expressed to us that they would not feel comfortable being forced to interact with armed police on their campus.
– Erik Christiansen, RIC faculty union president
Students who spoke with Rhode Island Current were mostly disposed to see benefits to the policy and view it through a lens of individual rights and responsibility.
“I grew up in rural Rhode Island,” Jake Fontaine, 20, a CCRI student from Chepachet, said. “Guns are nothing new to me.”
Fontaine said he is aware of the issues between police and communities of color and while he thinks those concerns are valid, he still supports arming campus police. “A big takeaway I have is they have no one armed,” he said.
Abbey Testa, a RIC student from Warwick, initially said she saw no issue with it either. Yet she noted she could see students not feeling safe around armed police.
“I see both sides of the argument,” she said. “I’ll just have to adjust and deal with it whatever the decision is.”
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