Staff Editorial: Don’t jump the gun: Consider all factors in arming UPD debate

How much thought have you given to arming the University Police Department? How much thought do you think it requires? A few seconds? Aren’t you either for it or against it?

It’s not that simple. This is not solely about how you feel about gun control or that UPD officer you don’t like. It’s also about UPD structure and accountability.

Last spring, UPD Chief Dolores Stafford co-authored a report recommending that college police officers carry firearms. Senior administrators announced a few weeks ago that the University is searching for a consultant to look into whether or not to arm UPD officers.

This is a serious question. Let’s consider this decision to be, hypothetically, a 100-step process. If that is the case, then GW is currently hovering around step four: searching for a consultant. It is premature to weigh in on either side when we do not have access to the statistics and materials a consultant will have.

What students and community members can do, though, is take these next few months to refine their stances on the issue. By the spring, the University will have secured a consultant and begun the investigation. Community and student input will be vital at this stage, but opinions will only be as valuable as they are nuanced.

People have strong feelings about firearms, but we all have to move beyond our gut reactions for or against gun control and gun proliferation. We have to move beyond feelings that UPD is unqualified based on unprofessional encounters. This issue is much more complicated.

This page has spent many weeks analyzing this question in anticipation of the upcoming investigation and report. Initially, our reactions were also tied to feelings about gun control and UPD professionalism. However, after examining documents from other colleges and national reports from experts, and we have concluded that this debate is much more complicated than it first appears.

The argument that UPD should not have guns due to a certain level of unprofessionalism is almost entirely moot. If GW arms UPD, undoubtedly there will be an extensive reorganization of training and hiring procedures to make them far more stringent. After all of these changes and precautions, arguing that an unqualified UPD officer might end up with a gun would be akin to arguing that one incompetent Metropolitan Police Department officer would preclude that entire department from having guns.

There are more relevant concerns to examine. Tied up with the potential arming of UPD are questions about UPD’s role on campus and its accountability and disclosure of records.

Currently, the department has officers who perform security functions, such as patrolling residence halls, as well as sworn officers with more extensive training. Debates over whether or not to arm UPD should also question whether the department should have two very different types of officers under the same command structure and consider who would have the guns.

Arming UPD and accountability also go hand in hand. As it stands, UPD records are entirely sealed. MPD records, on the other hand, are open. If UPD is going to be armed, we need to give serious consideration to whether UPD records should also be opened, so that the public can hold the department accountable for mishandlings. If guns become involved, accountability becomes even more vital.

All of these questions are just the beginning of the debate, but everyone should take time to seriously examine the issue beyond the narrow scope of gun control and away from preconceptions about UPD officers.

If you stand up at a town hall meeting in the spring to voice your opinion about arming UPD, make sure it’s an opinion worth listening to.

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Related Links

In preparation for understanding the complicated issue of campus security and arming University Police Department, The Hatchet’s Editorial Board reviewed extensive literature to identify potential support and dissent. The following were instrumental in investigating background and are useful for guiding discussion.

Click on a category to expand.

Hatchet Coverage »

National Reports »

Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech, April 16, 2007: Report of the Review Panel, presented to Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia by the independent Virginia Tech Review Panel.

Overview of the Virginia Tech Tragedy and Implications for Campus Safety, report by the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, co-authored by GW Police Chief Dolores Stafford

Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy, issued jointly by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice and Education

Report of the Campus Safety Task Force, commissioned by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper in response to Virginia Tech

Expecting the Unexpected: Lessons from the Virginia Tech Tragedy, by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities

Other Campuses Debate »

Daily Princetonian, 3/28/2008, Public Safety request firearms

Portland State University’s Daily Vanguard, 5/8/2007, Bill proposes to arm campus safety officers

The Grand Rapids Press, 4/15/2008, Calvin College safety officers could start carrying guns

The Grand Rapid Press, 4/17/2008, Calvin College students march to protest gun plan

The American Eagle, 2/23/2006, Fla. student shot by officer

Record Openness, Accountability »

The GW Hatchet, 3/10/2008, Records closed; UPD reports are closed for public inspection

Yale Daily News, 4/14/2008, Yale to open police records

Final decision in the matter of opening Yale Police Department’s records, as decided by the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, 2/13/2008

A guide to campus crime records access, compiled by the watchdog group Security on Campus

Additional Context »

Associated Press via TIME, 4/16/2007, Fatal Shootings at Colleges and Other Schools

TIME, 4/16/2007, Can we make campuses safer?

U.S. News and World Report, 4/22/2007, Toward a Safer Campus

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