New bill would arm campus police for quicker response to active shootings

As news of campus shootings have remained in the headlines, Rhode Island State Rep. William W. O’Brien sponsored a bill to arm campus police at the state’s public colleges.

Members of the gun-free campus communities, however, are expressing some of the same opposition that they did back in 2019 when O’Brien first introduced the bill.

While leftist movements call to defund the police or remove them from college campuses, Rhode Island’s General Assembly could increase their capability in responding to threats.  

Rep. William W. O’Brien recently sponsored H 5299 to arm campus police at the state’s public colleges as news of campus shootings remain in the headlines. The Boston Globe reported that O’Brien “has been told that it would take [five] minutes for armed police officers to respond” to a shooting at one of Rhode Island’s colleges.

“Although it is utterly disturbing to acknowledge, active shooter situations are not going away in our society, and most often, targets of these vile crimes are schools,” a statement from O’Brien obtained by The Boston Globe reads. 

H 5299 would arm campus police at two public schools, Rhode Island College (RIC) and the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI). The Boston Globe reported that campus police at Brown University and the University of Rhode Island are already armed. 

The bill, which the General Assembly considered in 2019, changes the law regarding the appointment of campus police, removing the requirement that a college’s board of governors authorize them to carry. Campus police must also complete training before October 2023. 

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Members of the gun-free campus communities, however, are expressing some of the same opposition that they did back in 2019. Students at CCRI claimed that batons and pepper spray were sufficient, according to NBC 10

James Mendonca, the Chief of Campus Police for RIC, told Campus Reform that his “department has been thoroughly trained in non-lethal force, use of handcuffs, and oleoresin capsicum spray.”

“RIC Campus Police has achieved accreditation from the Rhode Island Police Accreditation Commission and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, the worldwide gold standard for law enforcement accreditation, because of our effectiveness in maintaining campus safety,” he continued. 

A CCRI spokesperson told NBC 10 in 2019 that the college wanted to continue its community policing model, an approach that an article from one Stanford institute defines as building relationships with community members and seeking their input on strategies. 

CCRI similarly told Campus Reform that the college “recognize[s] there are many different models for campus policing in higher education.”

“We remain committed to a community policing model, and we recognize that community engagement is essential to a successful community policing model and we are proud of the relationship and trust our Campus Police have built within our college community,” Amy Kempe, CCRI’s Executive Director of Marketing, Communications & External Affairs, said. 

Should this legislation pass, thoughtful implementation will be critical,” she continued. 

“We would begin by engaging in transparent conversations with our students, faculty and staff about what an armed Campus Police will look like, with a particular focus on the experiences and perspectives of our Black community members and members of other minoritized groups.” 

Student activists have met campus safety measures with hostility, especially after the killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the rise of anti-police sentiment. Their actions range, as Campus Reform has reported, from raising concerns about increasing the campus police force to forming dedicated groups to get cops off campus.

[RELATED: Despite abnormally high crime rates, professor wants cops off campus]

Their activism is countered with calls to retain the police force on campuses in cities with rising crime. In the case of Rhode Island’s public colleges, H 5299 is sponsored by unlikely advocates: Democratic lawmakers, some of whom are even endorsed by the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence (RICAGV). 

RICAGV has previously cited gun control measures, such as limiting magazine capacity, as an antidote to mass shootings. In Rhode Island’s attempt to curb the threat of campus shootings, RICAGV takes a neutral stance towards H 5299 and defers to campus police. 

“When we look at our mission of decreasing gun violence, this is not something we would take a position on,” one member told The Boston Globe. “It’s not our expertise, so we would leave it to law enforcement officials to make a determination of what is most appropriate for their campuses.”

Campus Reform contacted all relevant parties listed for comment and will update this article accordingly.