University of Rhode Island campus police will start carrying guns Friday, making it the final public university in the nation to arm its officers.
The move to arm police came after a false alarm in 2013, when some students in a lecture hall thought they heard someone say they had a gun, setting off a panic on URI's bucolic campus in South Kingstown. While campus police arrived at the scene in less than a minute, it took about five minutes for armed police from South Kingstown to arrive. No gun was ever found.
University officials say the change will help campus police do their jobs and ensure safety.
"URI police needed to be prepared to be first responders in any emergency," university President David Dooley said.
A student government survey of URI undergrads in 2013 found that about two-thirds of respondents favored arming campus police. Michelle Fisette, a senior, calls it a great decision. She was in the classroom in 2013 when the false alarm happened and mayhem broke out.
"I can't imagine being URI police that had to respond to that call without having anything to defend themselves," she said.
Not everyone agrees. Some faculty members believe guns are unnecessary and will only cause problems on a rural campus with little crime, said Frank Annunziato, executive director of the URI chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the faculty union.
"The impetus for having guns was phony," he said. "The worst crime that's ever done here is people smoke marijuana. This is a happy place. It's not a place where guns are necessary."
He said the union would be vigilant in how the policy plays out.
"We just hope that the worst does not happen," he said.
After the policy was announced in April 2014, there has been a nationwide debate on police use of force, sparked by deadly police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. Dooley and Stephen Baker, URI's Director of Public Safety, said they kept those incidents in mind. Both said the focus would be on community policing, and that they included people with varying viewpoints as they put the policy in place.
"Obviously, the community is concerned that we do this properly, and I'm very confident that we have done that," Baker said.
Officers are required to undergo weapons training, a background check and a psychological examination. Since they were hired when the campus police force did not carry guns, officers also can choose whether to carry one, Baker said.
All but two of the department's 28 officers will be armed, either because they did not pass one of the required trainings or screenings or because they chose not to, he said.
Baker said most people on campus will not notice anything different.
"Other than the fact that our police officers will be carrying sidearms," he said, "it's not going to change the way they do their jobs."