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

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


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?"

Tools

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.