Decision to Arm Iowa's Campus Cops was Long Struggle

Nov. 1--IOWA CITY -- The news was bittersweet for retired University of Northern Iowa public safety Lt. Gary McCormack.

He fought for years to arm police officers on the three state university campuses. He spent thousands of dollars on lawsuits trying to force the issue, losing in district court and on appeal last year.

On Wednesday, the Iowa Board of Regents reversed its policy of 40 years that prevented police officers from regularly carrying firearms.

"I was really glad to hear the news," McCormack said, although he expressed some regret from spending so much time and money on the unsuccessful court cases.

The board voted 6-2 in favor of arming police officers at the University of Iowa, Iowa State and UNI.

McCormack spent 15 years as a UNI officer before retiring two years ago. He was a longtime proponent of arming officers for the safety of the campus, in general, and of the licensed officers.

"In the past we used to wait, call on Cedar Falls PD and wait," McCormack said of UNI public safety officers response to critical situations. "Now the first three or four officers there, when they're armed, they will be expected to go in."

While all campus officers at the three universities are certified law enforcement officers by the state and have firearms training, McCormack said some new training will be needed for dealing with lethal force and dealing with life-or-death situations.

UNI Public Safety Director David Zarifis said his department already is well trained, but they will work on making sure they meet regents training requirements before arming officers.

"I don't think any of the universities have a timeline. We will implement it when we're ready," Zarifis said.

The department already has weapons for its officers, although those were rarely unlocked over the years. The old policy allowed for carrying firearms only in response to specific situations and with explicit approval from the university president.

UNI President Benjamin Allen said the university will work through the regents policy before arming officers.

"Whatever we do, we don't want to delay this, but we don't want to rush into this either," Allen said.

The board's approval Wednesday was nearly a certainty before the meeting in Iowa City. Presidents of each of the three universities had expressed support for arming officers, and student groups also had approved of it.

Regent Robert Downer voted in favor of the measure because of the potential for crimes on campus. He said Iowa State and the University of Iowa ranked at least in the top half of their respective conferences for campus crime in their respective conferences.

"That, along with other data presented, caused me, reluctantly, to decide this is a change whose time has come," Downer said.

The board has discussed the issue at several different times over the past 40 years. The issue had drawn a great deal of attention after a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech University in April.

The regents had discussed changing the policy at its September meeting, but tabled it to seek opinions from the campuses and study the issue.

That study resulted in a thick notebook of findings.

Board president Michael Gartner was unconvinced of the need for firearms after wading through the study.

"I find no reason, compelling or non-compelling, that we should regularly arm campus police. Eighty percent of crime is drug- or alcohol-related, and arming police will not deal with that," Gartner said.

Gartner and Rose Vasquez cast the two votes against arming police officers.

"There is no evidence that an armed police officer would do anything to change the outcomes of any of the incidents documented," Gartner said.

While the regents seemed to know the new policy would be approved, they spent much of their time Wednesday debating whether officers should be required to carry firearms or the decision to arm should be left up to individual university presidents.

Gartner read from a section of the policy that detailed "officers shall carry firearms" and simply stated, "wow."

He felt the university administrators should have discretion.

Regent David Miles disagreed, stating there should be a consistent policy across the Regent institutions.

"I think this is a significant enough policy action that it should be made at the board level. I think we should settle the matter and make a choice," Miles said.

The final vote dictated that all three universities would arm officers. The board also suspended a second reading of the policy, meaning the Wednesday vote is final.

The actual vote was on a larger policy dealing with overall campus safety. Some other issues addressed in the policy included public transportation, lighting and security escorts for women.

Copyright (c) 2007, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.