Republication: Public Safety officers are being asked to do police work. Should they be armed?

Kim Dunlap, Staff Writer, February 25, 2005

The following articles are part of a series of articles republished to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Bucknellian’s publication. Read the rest here. Read this article in its original online form here.

Public Safety officers have long asked for the right to carry weapons while on duty, but the idea never got farther than the talking stages. That may change before the end of the semester.

At the same time as the administration is re-assessing the role of Public Safety at the University, many officers have begun efforts to unionize the Public Safety staff at the University in order attain new rights.

For some time members of the faculty and administration have been discussing the changing role of Public Safety officers on campus. Often considered simple enforcers of traffic and alcohol-consumption laws, many officers argue that the school and students expect them to serve the same purpose as a police force, without the benefits typically associated with one.

“We are going through a process of redefining what we expect from Public Safety officers,” General Counsel Wayne Bromfield said.

These talks have led to the rise of two movements by Public Safety: the interest in creating their own union and the request to receive firearms.

According to many in the department, it has become necessary to officially redefine the role of Public Safety at the University given the growing list of responsibilities delegated to them.

“Police work is basically all we do,” said Jason Bentley, Public Safety officer and acting president of the nascent union.

Public Safety officers are technically police officers, although sworn in under a law that allows private companies, like the University, to hire officers for private work, with fewer responsibilities than a government police force. They are all trained in the use of firearms and attend a state-certified academy.

Although input from several parties is being included in the decision on whether to give officers firearms, the final decision is up to University President Brian Mitchell.

Director of Public Safety Vincent DeCerchio declined to comment on the possibility of officers receiving firearms, or of any Public Safety employees joining a union.

“We have been asking them, in many respects, to act as police officers, without necessarily giving them the training or the armament for that position,” Bromfield said.

Firearms are not a recent request for offices, but this may be the closest they have come yet to having it granted.

“This has been requested for years and years. It’s not new … How often have you seen a Public Safety officer do a traffic stop?” asked Bentley, who, like other officers, is asked to perform them when necessary as part of his normal duties. “It’s one of the most dangerous things a police officer can do, especially unarmed, so we don’t seek them out.”

Many officers will argue that it is not unreasonable to feel threatened while on duty, and that firearms are a legitimate solution to realistic concerns. Several incidences in the past, both on-and-off campus, caused officers to be nervous about their limited safety gear.

“What brought this into sharper focus two years ago was the Public Safety officer that was shot up in Williamsport when he was breaking up a loud party,” Bromfield said.

In that incident, a non-student attending a party at the Pennsylvania College of Technology allegedly got into a fight with the officer breaking up the gathering, which took place on an active downtown strip similar to Lewisburg’s Sixth Street. The officer was shot and killed.

Another incident contributing to Public Safety’s unease is the recent burglary of Taylor Hall, where the perpetrator needed to be apprehended and wrestled to the ground with the assistance of Lewisburg Police Department.

Encounters under such uncertain circumstances lead many to feel under-prepared with the gear they are currently issued.

“They know that an intruder is there but they don’t know if it’s a prankster or an armed burglar,” Bromfield said. “They are approaching a building at 2 a.m. without any knowledge of what they’re about to encounter.”

At the moment, Public Safety officers at the University are outfitted with handcuffs — used to arrest unruly or law-breaking individuals — and their weaponry is limited.

“They are trained and certified in the use of deadly weapons, but the only gear they carry on campus is a baton for self defense,” Bromfield said.

The staff and student interest groups involved in the Public Safety talks are not the only ones involved in the debate. The administration plans to invite more community opinions as the issue progresses.

“I will shortly be gathering campus community input in public forums and focus groups, as we did extensively with students on some of the questions in the fall,” said Charles Pollock ’70, vice president for student affairs.

“At any time, because of the necessities of the job or the adoption of a revised mission, the president could authorize a different role, which could include carrying firearms,” Bromfield said.

This is not a question unique to the University. Pennsylvania state law allows any school to decide for itself whether to arm its private security.

“Pennsylvania permits private schools to choose what level of security and policing that they wish to adopt — within limits,” Bromfield said. “The highest we can get is the equivalent of police officers, or we could go as low as just enforcing parking regulations.”

Despite his power to do so, Mitchell does not plan to make such a drastic decision by himself, Bromfield said.

“[The president] is waiting to hear what a lot of the other groups, student groups, and Public Safety officers think … if it could be handled without jeopardizing the safety of the students…” Bromfield said. “Then he has to make a decision on whether he agrees that it’s necessary for Public Safety officers and does not constitute a threat to students.”

That is, in a nutshell, the administration’s dilemma; having guns would undoubtedly make officers safer, but makes it more possible that they could hurt someone accidentally.

“Our hope in all our planning for Public Safety is to enhance both the safety of everyone on campus and relations between Public Safety staff and rest of the community,” Pollock said.

In addition to the risk of injury as a result of firearms, the liabilities they bring would be another bill the University would have to pay in its growing list of costs. Financing licenses and training is not an issue, according to Bromfield.

“They all have training, they’re all licensed … so there would be no additional expense. Most insurers already assume that Public Safety officers will be armed, so that’s already been taken into account,” Bromfield said. “The relatively modest cost would not affect our tuition analyses. The total cost should be less than $6,000- $7,000.”

Giving University field officers firearms is not the only solution to the complaints of Public Safety, and other methods may be employed to meet their requests.

“We cannot put officers in harm’s way without adequate protection, but we do have the choice of either giving them greater protection or reducing our expectations of them in hazardous situations, which means turning more incidents over to the local police,” Pollock said.

Although the announcement of whether firearms will be granted to the officers is expected to come sometime this semester, the administration cannot be certain exactly when the decision will officially be made.

“Our target for having a Public Safety plan, one in which the arming question is answered and which the President has approved, is the end of the current semester,” Pollock said. “We are not yet far enough along in our analysis to say what the resolution of the arming question will be; there are many good arguments for having officers carry guns, but also countervailing issues such as cost to consider.”

Should Public Safety officers be denied firearms, they may be able to force the issue later on their own — especially if they successfully unionize (see sidebar).

“They could request, as part of their working conditions, that the University authorized their carrying firearms,” Bromfield said.

Despite some of the financial and social problems that may arise as a result of Public Safety armament, many understand the officers’ concerns and their request for modes of self-defense.

“I can appreciate their concern,” Bromfield said. “If I were called to investigate a dangerous incident in the middle of the night, I would probably prefer to be armed.”

Not everyone at the University considers the acquisition of firearms to be a good idea. Many students are opposed to arming Public Safety officers, considering such weapons unnecessary in the normally peaceful Lewisburg area.

“That’s totally unreasonable considering past experiences,” Brittany Patton ’07 said. “I think it’s ridiculous.”

Some view these new measures as counter-constructive attempts to control the student population, rather than ones to help protect them, making students feel victimized rather than protected.

“By arming a police force whose main duties are silencing noise violations and preventing underage consumption, the University is again overextending its already directionless student policing measures,” Dan Fried ’06 said. “I feel as though I’m a prisoner at a concentration camp rather than a student at a top liberal arts university.”

Others feel that students would feel more hostile toward armed offices under any circumstances.

“I’d say Public Safety should not carry guns. That only adds to the fear that students have for them, because already when students see Public Safety they assume the worst: that they are in trouble or something, instead of thinking that Public Safety is trying to help them,” Chuck Paindiris ’07 said. “It just adds to the tension between both parties, and gives Public Safety more of a power trip and students more reason to dislike them.”

Others agree firearms may be necessary in more threatening situations, but might give campus officers too much power — power which many tuition-paying students feel they are being deprived of.

“I guess it’s understandable if they’re approaching a burglary situation where their lives might be in danger,” Anastacia Fullmer ’07 said. “But I think if they want all the rights of a police force, then we should get all the rights of citizens. Like [the] right to due process in alcohol-related situations such as DUI.”

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