On Sept. 8, University President Joel Seligman emailed the student body the results of the University Security Commission’s research on the question of arming Department of Public Safety (DPS) officers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it recommended that some, not all, DPS officers be armed. In the proposed plan, officers patrolling Strong Memorial Hospital would carry guns, while those on the River Campus and at the Eastman School of Music, with the exception of senior command officers, would not.

The final decision on the matter remains for Seligman to make, but the proposal, for all its flaws, is a good one.

The Commission’s recommendation echoes an important distinction that arose last semester, following the news that DPS was considering arming some of its officers: life for officers and staff at the Strong Memorial Hospital is demonstrably more dangerous than life for students and officers on the relatively sheltered River Campus.

DPS officers have confiscated numerous weapons there, and the hospital’s staff has expressed concerns about their own safety in a “volatile environment” where there is an “increasing number of people with weapons […] on a daily basis.” The Commission’s report, in fact, contains two photographs of weapons confiscated by DPS officers, an assortment that includes knives, box cutters, handguns, a rifle, and what appears to be a long sword.

This distinction demands that the University acknowledges the safety concerns of Strong’s staff and of the DPS officers serving them.

The Commission’s recommendation that officers at Strong Memorial be armed is, of course, contrary to the wishes of many students and faculty, but it’s certainly not abnormal to employ armed security personnel in a major metropolitan hospital.

The Commission has made an effort to answer Emergency Department staff’s concerns while still limiting the number of armed officers who will be on the River Campus, thus addressing student and faculty concerns, too.

As for whether officers on the River Campus should be armed, the Commission appears to concur with the students who voiced their opposition last semester, and with the 100 faculty members who petitioned against arming DPS officers.

The term “mission creep” describes a project which expands beyond its original scope after initial successes. As it stands, the Commission’s recommendation contains no safeguards against mission creep. The report recommends a review within five years to “determine the status of the recommendation and if further changes should be made.” Suppose that after arming 38 officers at Strong Memorial, Emergency Department staff and DPS officers really do feel safer and better able to do their jobs. What’s to stop the University administration from adding armed officers at the River Campus?

The Commission’s recommendation should include a hard limit on the number of DPS officers that can be armed, and should include a provision that DPS officers on the River Campus will never be armed—a condition that students and faculty have made their support for abundantly clear—so long as the current climate remains.

One worrying aspect of the Commission’s report is its benchmarking of peer institutions. The report contrasts UR with 30 peer institutions, 26 of which employ armed safety officers or are in the process of doing so. In doing this, the Commission seems to say, “This is the way things are going. More and more institutions of higher education are arming their security officers. The University of Rochester is in a dwindling minority.”

Perhaps that’s true, but it doesn’t mean UR must arm its officers. The University should make no decisions based solely or largely on the progress of other institutions—rather, it should keep its thumb on the pulse of its own student body and environment, the truest indicators of whether change is actually needed.

Fischer and others have touted DPS’ respectful relationship with students and its prioritization of de-escalation and nonviolence. Why threaten that now?  

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