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

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


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.