Top administrators began meeting this summer to assess whether to arm University Police Department officers, officials said this week.
A new committee, led by Senior Vice President and General Counsel Beth Nolan, is in the process of hiring an outside consultant to identify the benefits and drawbacks to giving UPD firearms. The discussion follows the release of a report last spring co-authored by UPD Chief Dolores Stafford which advocated for campus law enforcement to carry guns.
"I think we should research the issue and be thorough in weighing the pros and cons in making a decision," Stafford said in an interview this week.
A number of possible consulting firms have been identified and several have been interviewed, Nolan said. The actual study and review process will begin once the consultant is chosen, and will last for six to 10 weeks, she said.
"A consultant with expertise in campus security issues will enable us to make the best assessment of those issues for our campus in order to bring a recommendation to President Knapp," Nolan wrote in an e-mail. "Such experts also will be able to share with us best practices from other campuses across the country, which is a particular benefit of outside expertise."
The committee eventually plans to present a recommendation to University President Steven Knapp detailing whether an armed presence would help deter crime.
"We felt - as a senior staff - that we need to get expert, outside advice to help us make a judgment," said Robert Chernak, senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services, and a member of the committee.
Local law enforcement agencies, community leaders, internal assessments and student opinion will play a role in the study, Chernak said. Nolan said the search committee has been "explicit" in the need for soliciting student opinion, but does not yet know how it will be done.
The decision to assess arming UPD officers was not precipitated by any one event, Nolan said.
"The question of how best to secure college campuses continues to be a critical one, and arises in different ways at different times," Nolan said.
She added that arming officers on campus is not an easy decision.
"The question of whether a university should have an armed or unarmed police force is a complex one, and depends on a number of factors including campus location, campus security issues, other conditions on campus, local law enforcement conditions, and the legal and regulatory landscape."
Christopher Blake, associate director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement, said most schools with a sworn police forces have armed their officers. Stafford formerly served as president of IACLEA.
"When you have an active shooter like you did at Virginia Tech, you don't want to send an officer in there unarmed," Blake said, referring to the April 2007 shooting spree that claimed 32 lives.
Blake pointed to a Justice Department survey from the 2004-2005 which found that nearly nine out of 10 colleges with sworn police forces armed their officers. He added that ultimately an institution should make the decision based on the costs and benefits of arming police.
Nolan said they plan to gather data from other universities discussing the same issue.
"Campuses across the country have a range of arrangements, from fully unarmed security officers to fully armed campus police forces," Nolan said. "Some campuses have recently armed their campus police. Some have decided not to do so. A few have even moved from an armed to unarmed police force."
Nolan said the cost of arming the police would depend on whatever plan is developed and approved by senior administrators.
In addition to Nolan and Chernak, the committee consists of Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz, Provost, Vice President John "Skip" Williams, and Barbara Porter, Knapp's chief of staff.
-Lara Gori contributed to this report.