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

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.

Some changes are already under way at Iowa and ISU. Outdoor warning systems and emergency notification programs using voice and text messaging were installed at those colleges earlier this year. Allen said UNI is still looking at which systems will work best.

Gary Steinke, executive director of the Board of Regents, has received letters supporting officers with weapons from people in the Johnson County area. Steinke said board members know their decision will upset many, regardless of how they vote.

"The board would never raise tuition if they were afraid of making an unpopular decision," Steinke said. "We need to concern ourselves with the fact-based information. Most campus police forces are armed and in our conferences, we are the only ones who aren't.

"Those are the kinds of arguments that will make the difference. This is certainly not based on a poll."

More guns

Katherine Van Wormer, a UNI professor in social work, knows most colleges already arm their police forces. But that doesn't make the decision right in her mind.

A federal survey of 581 four-year colleges completed in 1995 showed about 81 percent of police departments at public schools had armed officers. Another 34 percent of private schools also did. The survey went out to campuses with more than 2,500 students.

More recent data apparently isn't available, though David Zarifis, director of the UNI Department of Public Safety, said anecdotally he knows more campuses have armed their officers in the last 10 years.

"It's interesting because there are hardly any murders at all on those university campuses," said Van Wormer, who recently studied crime statistics reported by campus police department. "That data was never available to anyone, and now they have to report it. I learned a lot just looking at that. I just figured there were dead bodies found on theses campuses."

Van Wormer said some crimes exist that no gun will prevent.

Zarifis couldn't agree more. But he points to a photo on his computer screen that shows two tables covered in weapons -- all confiscated by officers in previous years.

"A weapon is no guarantee of anything, but we have to acknowledge the possibility. This is a known," Zarifis said.

Van Wormer, a Quaker, is a strong advocate for gun control and would love to see the United States implement a system similar to the one she grew accustomed to in Norway.

"The police officers are very professional and have law degrees. I once asked an officer how he would feel about being armed. He said, 'If we got guns, then criminals would get guns,'" Van Wormer said.

"They feel very professional not carrying guns. They were actually insulted by the question."

David Goodson, founder of Social Action, said the university should look at other options. In addition to the worry about increased racial profiling, Goodson said, universities should leave the role of policing to city law enforcement agencies.

Goodson argues universities should employ unarmed security guards. Universities could then provide money to local law enforcement agencies to hire additional officers to police campuses.

"If the universities already have law enforcement agencies, that is just wrong. That means that churches should set up their own law enforcement agency, or every business should have their own law enforcement agency," he said. "Who does law enforcement in America? Do we have a police department in Iowa City? In Cedar Falls? In Ames?"


Campus officers in Iowa are equipped with handcuffs, pepper spray, a night stick and Tasers. Jim Schumann, a regional director for the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Agencies, said most days that is enough.

"Guns are not an offensive weapon for an officer. They use it as a last resort. But if they need it and don't have it, they will never need it again," he said.

"The last thing you want to do is shoot someone. But the other alternative isn't very good either."

The association recommends trained and certified campus officers -- who are asked to perform the same functions as city, county and state officers -- have the same tools to do their jobs.

However, when an incident involves a gun, campus officers must disengage.

"That policy just doesn't work. That flies in the face of everything else these officers have been trained to do," Zarifis said.

Zarifis said it is an easy call when a weapon is present. He simply doesn't send his officers.

Instead, he calls the Cedar Falls Police Department.

Chief Rick Ahlstrom said his department responds as soon as possible, but it could be several minutes before they reach campus. Priority calls -- such as a death or shooting situation -- generate an immediate response. Ahlstrom estimates the department's average response time to calls on UNI's campus is three to five minutes.

Under a sharing agreement between UNI and Cedar Falls, the university's officers also back up city police when needed. However, Ahlstrom said, UNI officers can't help in every situation.

"Anytime there is a potential for weapons or crowds where there is a potential for people to be armed, we can't call them. And if we do, it is to maybe handle our routine calls while we handle that," Ahlstrom said.

To those who think police with guns are trigger happy, Ahlstrom offers this statistic: In more than 30 years as a Cedar Falls officer, he cannot recall an officer discharging their weapon except during training or to dispose of an animal.

"Have we had them out? Yes. Have we had them in situations where they could be useful? Yes," Ahlstrom said. "But we have been very successful in our calls to de-escalate the threat without the use of our firearm."

The decision

No matter what the Board of Regents decides this week, Zarifis said, some serious conversations are needed on university campuses.

"There is a lot of work to do whichever way this goes," he said.

Allen said if regents agree to arm campus officers, universities will have to take a serious look at how guns will be introduced and how to make those on campus as comfortable as possible with the change.

Allen's recommendation to the Board of Regents also requests officers recertify in the use of firearms at least twice a year and continue to enhance their annual training on topics like diversity, conflict resolution and community-oriented policing. The Department of Public Safety and UNI Public Safety Advisory Committee will be asked to establish a more transparent review process for any situation where a gun is drawn or fired.

If the proposal is denied, Zarifis and ISU's Deisinger said, the universities must reconsider the role of campus police.

"Fundamentally, this is a decision about whether the campus community wants a security department or a police department," Deisinger said.

"No other law enforcement agencies are asked to perform at this level with the responsibility and risk without a firearm. I think the direction is then implied by the decision. I grow increasingly uncomfortable asking officers to perform all parts of their job without all the tools."

Deisinger said there is nothing wrong with security guards, however they can't provide the service campus communities are accustomed to.

Van Wormer, the UNI professor who opposes arming officers, said even if the board opts not to allow campus officers to carry guns they should continue offering the same level of protection to university students, faculty and staff.

"They do their job so well now. I see them as completely competent as they are," she said. "They seem to be saying they can't protect people ... yet they have been providing very good protection.

"I like it just the way it is."

Since early August the university presidents have worked to gather input on whether campus police should carry guns. Below is a quick rundown of how they accomplished that task.

President Benjamin Allen, UNI: Memos sent to all senior administrators and leaders on campus, including Faculty Senate, United Faculty and the Professional and Scientific Council; Met with UNI police officers and Director David Zarifis; Request for input placed in UNI-Online, the school's electronic newsletter for faculty and staff, and MyUNIverse News, an electronic newsletter for students; Request to UNI and Price Lab School parents; United Faculty and Faculty Senate hosted an open forum; P&S Council hosted open discussion; Northern Iowa Student Government conducted survey among students; Met with groups and individuals to address specific issues or concerns.

President Gregory Geoffroy, ISU: Sought input from elected representative bodies, including Faculty Senate, Professional and Scientific Council and Government of the Student Body; sought input from campus groups and individuals across campus; factored in comments from public forums across campus; received approximately 150 e-mails and other communications from individuals expressing their views.

President Sally Mason, Iowa: Forwarded copy of the original recommendation to leadership in the Faculty Senate, Staff Council, Student Government and AFSCME's local leadership; assistant vice president, director of public safety, vice president for legal affairs and general counsel met with the leadership of these constituency groups on numerous occasions; the groups sponsored a campuswide forum; the director of public safety attended a meeting of the University of Iowa Parents Association Advisory Board.

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