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Active shooters in schools: Arming campus cops is elementary

A mass-notification system can mitigate various issues after a campus shooting happens, but it’s not going to stop the active shooter


Police officers from the Omaha Emergency Response Unit conduct training for a possible “Active Shooter” on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, July 11, 2007.

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Editor’s Note: Princeton University says ‘no’ to armed officers... What do you think? E-mail us by clicking here, or add your comments below.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has decreed that campus police at Princeton University don’t need guns. OSHA said in a June ruling that despite Princeton’s policy of not allowing its campus police officers to carry firearms in the conduct of their duty, the university has complied with OHSA regulations to protect its law enforcement employees against occupational hazards.

Jim Lanzi, the Crime Prevention Coordinator for the Department of Public Safety at Princeton, filed an anonymous complaint (his identity was later revealed) against the school with OSHA in which he stated – rightly so in our view – that by not allowing campus police the ability to carry guns, the university has created a workplace safety hazard. But OHSA sided with the University’s contention that “Princeton Township and Borough police will be there when needed and on-campus public safety officers still do not need guns,” according to a report in the Times of Trenton.

The OSHA ruling is just the latest setback in a series of efforts by Lanzi, who as the FOP president represents two dozen officers whose job it is to patrol the picturesque private campus that lies about halfway between New York and Philadelphia. Lanzi had written letters to the administration, from the university president on down to managers and cabinet-level offices, but the president never replied and he’d received a minimal response from anyone else he had petitioned on the matter.

Lanzi tells Police1 in an exclusive interview that the issue gained steam after he responded to an inconsistency in the school newspaper, The Princetonian, on how the mass notification system the university had installed would work in active shooter incidents.

“The local student newspaper made it sound like it’s the end-all and is going to save people in the active shooter situations,” Lanzi says. “I didn’t criticize the university – I said that what the university needs to do now is to take it one more step and arm their police officers so that we can engage the active shooter.”

The Northern Illinois shooting and Virginia Tech tragedy before it demonstrated that the law enforcement community who defend against madmen and malcontents must rapidly engage the subject in order to save lives.

“Time – you’ve got to shorten that time up that the person can have a gun and start shooting and a mass notification system isn’t going to do that. The mass-notification system certainly mitigates issues after the shooting, but it’s not going to stop the shooting,” Lanzi says.

Rick Armellino, CEO of Baker Batshield says that colleges without armed and trained police first responders – those that depend on the next layer of response, which in this particular case is the Princeton Township police – have essentially made an administrative decision to outsource public safety to an agency that probably will take longer to get there.

“The issue is stopping the killing, and if the school determines that for whatever factors, ‘we’re not going to have armed guards, we don’t consider that appropriate’ well, then the next layer obviously takes more time,” Armellino tells Police1.

Conversely, Armellino says that schools that have armed and trained their security people may be responding to a combination of environmental and market dynamics. “They are armed and shielded and trained and they have a very aggressive plan put together to save the lives of their students on campus regardless of any negative political implications. I have a feeling [those schools] compete a little more for students than Princeton, and I think Princeton is [saying], ‘we’ll have students regardless of what the political stance is on weapons’.”

Rapid Response: Run Away
Police1 columnist Jim Glennon says, “If someone starts shooting up Princeton, then the Princeton campus cops have only one alternative – run! What else would they be expected to do? …Moving towards the threat is ludicrous if not armed. So let the school create a policy that basically says that the cops run from the gunfire just as they direct the students to do.”

In effect, that’s precisely what Princeton (and in a sense, OHSA) is telling its campus cops to do. “Had the OSHA issue been ‘we expect you to approach and neutralize and an active killer without a weapon, you know, then you’d have a case, but obviously they’re not expecting them to do that nor are they requiring a fast response from any employee of the college…that security guard can protect himself by not getting involved in the first place, which is obviously what the college expects,” says Armellino.

The problem really lies in the fact that while public attention is drawn to active shooter incidents, the Princeton policy (and those like it) put campus cops in harm’s way 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. “It’s unfortunate that [active shooter] is the incident you go to, but they forget about car stops we do, the suspicious person stops we do, all those things that are probably equally dangerous, and we do those on a regular basis,” Lanzi says.

Despite the disproportionate media attention that active shooter incidents receive, the tragedies at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech have apparently taught nothing to the general public (or the federal government) about the deadly potential for violence to people who live and work on college campuses in the United States. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, about two-thirds of the four-year colleges and universities with at least 2,500 students had armed campus police officers as of the 2004-2005 school year. The same study found that three-quarters of campus law enforcement agencies used officers with full arrest powers. These numbers don’t add up – there are too many schools out there with campus cops who are expected to approach potentially deadly situations unarmed.

“We are commissioned, well-trained police officers and the university just elects not to arm us,” Lanzi says. “We routinely do everything else a police officer does, and beyond that we’re a public safety department that certainly provides a, you know different level of service to our community than you would in a municipal community.”

The problem with the OSHA ruling – beyond the obvious issue that it puts the safety of officers and students at risk – is that OHSA knows about as much about the occupational hazards faced by police officers as the Census Bureau knows about nuclear energy. The agency simply has no business ruling on the matter in the first place, but that’s the venue in which Lanzi’s argument most recently has been made.

“In reality, OSHA has no laws that specifically say you’ve got to arm police officers. They have policies and rules that say how to make machinery safe, and how to make a work area safe, but there is nothing that says how to make a police officer’s job safer,” Lanzi says.

So the question becomes, why even file the OSHA complaint? Quite simply, Lanzi had observed OSHA cases from Iowa and Wisconsin that had been rejected and filed his own complaint, incorporating wording used by the appellate court in their findings for those cases. Lanzi sought to use the lessons learned in preceding rulings as he lodged the claim that the university endangers “the community’s reasonable expectation of security and safety” by refusing to allow his officers the tools they need – sidearms – that would enable them to protect themselves in hazardous situations.

The thinking was to file in such a way as to inoculate the complaint against rejection. It was a good idea, but didn’t work.

Lanzi doesn’t know what will happen next – he told the Trenton Times that going to court over the matter is unlikely, and tells Police1 that although he has the option to resubmit his OSHA complaint in a more formal manner, he’s not presently inclined to do so. Meanwhile, he’s collecting letters of support from alumni across the country, and he’s most certainly not done with the effort to arm his officers.

“I’m really trying to work within the system that’s here because we’re a private industry, a private business,” Lanzi explains. “I don’t want to alienate myself to the administration but at the same time I don’t want to lie down and say, ‘I’m not going to do anything.’ I’m trying to persistently get the administration to do a serious review of their policy which they have never done.”

Lanzi tells Police1 that a “Facebook” group supporting his efforts has even materialized. Appropriately named “Princetonians for a Safer Campus,” the group’s stated objective is to “change to University policy so that Princeton University Police Officers are properly equipped to serve and protect the campus community.” Whoever put the group together went to some lengths to declare that the officers they’re supporting are “fully trained and qualified by the State of New Jersey as police officers, having undergone months of police academy training and firearms certification.”

It’s good to know that at least some members of the alumni and student populations have Lanzi’s back, but the administration appears to remain intransigent. The university’s message to the community is essentially: We will not tolerate guns even in the hands of our own public safety personnel. They seem to place this political decision ahead of a parent’s wishes that an active killer be neutralized their child is counted among the dead or injured. Princeton must have such a “waiting list” that the university has the luxury of calling all the shots – quite literally – on the security of its students.

Sheep, Shepherds, Wolves, and Sheepdogs
Police1 columnist and Street Survival Seminar instructor Dave Smith has written extensively on the subject of arming campus police. In a P1 Exclusive called Shepherds and Wolves, written in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting, Smith said: “A simple truth: there may come a time in any one of these schools where the guardians of these innocents may have to defend them from this type of horrific violence. That moment may be the one single point in time when the violence might be stopped. The problem: the violence will have to be stopped with like force, and in too many campuses and school systems the defenders (the students’ protectors) have no deadly force because they carry no firearms.”

Smith concludes: “People of action, such as you and I, will always seek what we might do to stop these terrible tragedies. Others will beg to create a world that will never be, a paradise of sheep and wolves lying side-by-side in loving peace. They will someday learn that the shepherd must not be denied the staff to smite the wolf; for the spirit of the wolf will never change and while some wonder why the wolf eats the lamb, you, the shepherd, must stand ever vigilant between the two…”

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.