Iowa's Universities to Decide: Arm Campus Officers or Not?

Decision by Board of Regents to consider perspectives from officers, students, teachers

Sep. 16--CEDAR FALLS -- The issue of arming campus police officers has divided the University of Northern Iowa campus for decades.

Questions abound about whether officers protecting the college -- considered one of the safest in the country -- need to carry weapons to do their jobs.

Officers say yes: They do the same job as city police officers and should be equipped accordingly.

But it isn't just UNI's officers talking about the issue this time around. Since school began last month campus communities in Cedar Falls, Iowa City and Ames have spent hours debating the issue. The Iowa Board of Regents will finally have its say when members meet Tuesday in Council Bluffs.

On one side are stories like Steve Carignan's. His father was dean at a small college in Maine when he was shot by a student upset about an expulsion. Despite Carignan's extreme dislike of guns, he supports the UNI Department of Public Safety's request to carry arms.

"My point is that this can happen on any campus, no matter how safe you think it is," said Carignan, assistant vice president for educational and sports event center management.

On the other side stand professors like Jerome Soneson and Katherine Van Wormer. Van Wormer has researched the impact of guns on police officers and the problem of what professionals describe as suicide by cop. She worries these issues may become more prominent on campus should university officers be armed.

Soneson, an associate professor of philosophy and religion, worries more about the potential for mistakes. Last month he shared several stories, including that of Eric Shaw, a 31-year-old man killed by an Iowa City police officer while working in his downtown studio. Officers were in the building looking for a burglar and entered Shaw's apartment. The officer accused of firing the weapon originally said he thought the cell phone in Shaw's hand was a gun. He later admitted firing the gun when he flinched.

"These were highly trained police officers," Soneson said during an open forum on campus last month. "The UNI campus security guards have asked to carry guns for years now. ... Guns are unsafe.

"Even highly trained police officers make mistakes, and no amount of training will keep this from happening," Soneson said.

Despite the argument, UNI President Benjamin Allen has recommended regents allow campus police officers to carry guns. University of Iowa President Sally Mason and Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy agreed.

"The recommendation to arm UNI police officers is based largely on the fact that the risk to police officers in meeting their responsibility without proper equipment is real," Allen wrote to the regents.

Why now?

All three state universities were already immersed in a review of safety procedures when the massacre at Virginia Tech occurred April 16. The reviews included everything from emergency management plans to how to warn faculty, staff and students of danger from natural disaster or a gunman on campus.

The studies continued, but at the request of Gov. Chet Culver results those reviews were sent to his office and the Legislature in July.

Currently, university officers can request to carry firearms in certain situations. All requests must be approved by the school's president or vice president.

"This has been something that we have advocated for and recommended for years," ISU Capt. Gene Deisinger said. "This is not due to a change in crime statistics or driven, at least on our part, by the horrible tragedy at Virginia Tech. Our focus is not on the mass murderer."

Deisinger said the reason falls closer to home.

"My greatest concern is for that officer doing the traffic stop at 2 a.m. tomorrow morning with a subject who is willing to go to extreme measures to not go back to jail," he said.

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