Follow-up on the arming of some public safety officers

Susquehanna University decided, effective Dec. 14, 2018, to authorize a limited number of highly trained public safety officers to carry firearms on campus while on duty.

Below are answers to some questions we’ve received following the announcement regarding the change in procedure.

+Why was the decision made to arm some officers?

The focus of the procedural change is to protect the campus community, especially from outside threats of an active shooter during peak hours and key events. It’s one element in a broad number of emergency preparedness measures in response to national trends and the high level of importance our community places on safety.

It was a security decision, not a policing strategy. It’s our strategy that knowledge of armed officers will deter incidents while improving response time to save lives should a serious event occur.

There have been threats and gun incidents in the local community and on campus in the past 18 months that guided our decision. A shooting incident can happen at a small campus, and it has. In the last four years, there have been shootings at three small college campuses in Pennsylvania; two occurred in 2017.

Also, in 2017, active-shooter incidents spiked, when 30 such incidents occurred and 138 people were killed in the U.S., according to the FBI. By comparison, there were 20 incidents in 2015 and 2016; 11.4 annually between 2000 and 2014; approximately four per year in the 1990s; and an average of 1.1 going back to the 1970s.

+How was this decision made?

Our policy allows the public safety director to authorize the possession of firearms on campus. The decision to revise our current procedure included consultation with the university’s Board of Trustees and the Selinsgrove borough chief of police. The administration took time to meet with several key constituents and groups before making the announcement. Naturally, the responsibility and the decision to provide resources to adequately protect the campus and its students, faculty and staff, rests with the administration.

+Are the armed officers prepared to handle the responsibility?

The SU public safety officers who will carry arms are already certified under the Pennsylvania Lethal Weapons Training Act (Act 235) and will be required to complete continuous training, be subject to periodic inspections and be required to complete periodic training exercises using firearms. As part of security training this year, university public safety officers participated in an active-shooter-response training on campus along with local police officers. The armed SU officers each have over 25 years of police experience as former state troopers.

+When will armed public safety officers use their firearms?

The firearms will be used only to protect themselves and others against serious threats, such as the violent threat of serious bodily injury or death to a person on campus, in accordance with Act 235. The university already has a “Use of Force” policy that addresses any type of force used by armed or unarmed officers. It requires strict reporting and review of any such situation where physical force was required by officers.

+Does anything else change regarding the armed officers’ duties?

All SU officers, including our newly armed officers, will remain university public safety officers, not sworn police officers, and will still direct student conduct matters to student life. The armed officers will not carry out other law enforcement duties; arrests for criminal acts will still be handled by the local police agency.

+Why aren’t the names or number of armed officers released?

As a best safety practice, SU prefers not to publish details of security measures to the external public and asks that the campus community honor that request. That said, any student, faculty member or staff member who wants to know who they are will be provided that information and are invited to meet them.

+Will they carry concealed firearms or open carry?

The armed officers are licensed to carry concealed firearms and certified to carry a firearm in the performance of their duties. While wearing personal clothing, such as a suit, a firearm will be carried in a holster out of view of the public. Should they be in uniform, they will be worn in a security holster, consistent with public safety best practices.

+Couldn’t they keep firearms locked in a cabinet until an incident occurs?

A practice such as this is not consistent with public safety and emergency response best practices. Requiring officers to remove firearms from a locked cabinet may dramatically increase the response time and the risk for casualties, particularly if the officers are not in the public safety office. Most incidents end when law enforcement confronts an active shooter. They are halted/killed by officers (46 percent), commit suicide (40 percent) or surrender (14 percent), according to the New York Police Department. Estimates are that one person dies or is seriously injured every 15 seconds during a shooting incident. Every second counts for trained officers to neutralize the threat.

+Were non-lethal alternatives considered?

When a firearm is used by a violent criminal, an immediate response is required. Devices, such as a “taser,” can be effective in many situations. However, a taser is not appropriate in an active shooter situation given the lethality of a firearm. Tasers, batons and other non-lethal weapons require officers to approach within close proximity of the offender and could jeopardize the success and safety of the responding officer(s). Those SU officers, who are trained, carry pepper spray as an alternative option for less serious threats.

+Aren’t local police sufficient?

The Selinsgrove Police Department recommended that the University make this change. Local and state police will still provide us with traditional law enforcement services for campus and assist us as best they can in a crisis. Relying solely on local police has disadvantages. Although the police station is within a mile of most of the campus, the Selinsgrove Police Department has limited officers available, who are not always at the station or are dealing with other police matters. This circumstance creates an inevitable security vulnerability that requires planning to mitigate. Additionally, local police do not have the same intimate knowledge of the campus, its facilities and its community members as our university officers. More so, the university has the aptitude to create and maintain its own training standards, many of which are unique to a college environment.

+Aren’t other safety measures enough?

Our goal is to enhance safety by augmenting existing campus security measures. We will continue to commit to campus safety improvements, as we have in recent years. For example, last year, we increased our number of mass-casualty kits and defibrillators in key locations on campus. We provide an emergency text and email alert system that is recurrently tested. We monitor a campus-wide camera system. We maintain more than 100 “blue” panic phones throughout campus. The 96 blue-dot phones and 10 blue-light devices are regularly verified to be in working order. Many buildings, including all residence halls, have limited-access building entrances. Additionally, public safety has the ability to do a “single-button lock down” in a crisis. However, as on any open campus, security vulnerabilities are inevitable and specific measures are required to address potential gun violence or an active shooting.

+Is arming SU officers in line with similar colleges and universities?

In central Pennsylvania, several colleges equip some officers with firearms, including Bucknell University, Dickinson College, Franklin & Marshall College, Gettysburg College, Juniata College, Lehigh University, Millersville University, Moravian College, Muhlenberg College, Penn State Harrisburg and York College. Nationwide, the percentage of university campuses with some type of armed officers has grown to 75 percent, according to a 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report. That percentage grew from two-thirds in its previous report to the most recent three-fourths.

+Is the university addressing students’ concerns of safety?

The safety and security of all our students is top of mind, which is the key reason for this decision. Prior to announcing this decision, we presented it to the Board of Trustees and University Council, which includes student members. Immediately preceding the announcement, we met with the Student Government Association (SGA) executive board and the entire SGA senate. Following the announcement, the vice president for student life met with leaders from various student organizations to gather feedback.

+Is the university addressing the concerns of minority students, faculty and staff?

The director of public safety and other administrators are working with students, faculty and staff to discuss their concerns and create a plan to address them. The director of public safety has been meeting periodically with student leaders from diverse student organizations and will continue to do so. Training suggestions made by them have guided, and will continue to guide, our armed and unarmed officer education on such issues as implicit-bias and cultural competency. We will collect recurring feedback from minority groups and individuals. The new director of inclusion & diversity position, for which a search is underway to fill, will ensure that inclusion and diversity considerations are incorporated into the everyday work of the institution, including public safety.

+How can students, faculty and staff express concerns?

We are reaching out to student leaders of campus organizations and responding to students who contact us directly. Faculty and staff are encouraged to have conversations with deans and senior leaders. Students requesting additional information can contact Susan Lantz, vice president for student life. We will continue the conversation in the spring semester.