The higher education system in the United States encompasses traditional four year universities, junior or community colleges, small religious oriented colleges, and a wide variety of trade or technical colleges. Each year over 20 million students physically attend classes at a college or university campus at one of the more than 7,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States. Additionally, each year millions of non-students, alumni, and members of the general public, attend a wide array of events at college and university campuses across the country.

Creating and ensuring a safe environment on college campuses is critical in fostering a healthy learning environment. While it is widely recognized that campus security and safety is an important aspect of postsecondary education, many colleges have traditionally relied upon unarmed "Campus Safety Officers," instead of armed campus police officers. High profile reports of crimes committed on college campuses, including the slaying of 32 people at Virginia Tech University in 2007, have caused some to question the safety of college campuses that do not have armed security or police officers. This article examines crime and safety on college campuses and discusses the benefits and disadvantages of having armed security or police officers on campus.

Safety on college campuses

Since 1990 The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act has required all colleges that participate in federal student aid programs to report specified crime data on a yearly basis. While crime statistics gathered under this federal statute are valuable; sociologists, criminologists, and other researchers who study crime statistics are correct when they point out that evaluating crime statistics is complicated by many factors. Raw statistics without proper analysis can be misleading for a multitude of reasons. In many cases, crimes occurring on college campuses may not be reported to anyone at all or they may be reported to local police instead of campus safety or security departments. Some colleges may not have adequate institutional structures in place to accurately collect crime data and there may be reluctance by some schools to thoroughly collect crime data for fear that it will give the school a bad image. While not widespread, there have been colleges and universities that have been fined for failure to comply with the Clery Act. As skewed and incomplete as Clery Act crime statistics may be, the crime statistics disclosure requirement can be helpful in evaluating the safety of a particular college or university.

While high profile crimes often put campus safety in the media spotlight, shootings, murders, and serious person-to-person crimes - while they do occur, are not common. Interestingly, while some campus crime can be attributed to criminal intruders or mentally deranged individuals coming onto campus, the vast majority of campus crime involve students as both perpetrators and victims. When compared to the general population, research overwhelmingly shows college campuses are one of the safest places to be.

Armed or unarmed security?

While all available research clearly shows that college campuses are safe in comparison to the community as a whole, campus safety is a necessary feature of postsecondary education and almost every college campus has some type of "security" personnel. Some institutions employ sworn and armed law enforcement officers who have full arrest powers granted by a state or local government. Other institutions employ sworn officers but do not arm them with firearms and many colleges use non-sworn officers who are sometimes equipped with pepper spray or Tasers but in other cases are completely unarmed.

Whether to have armed officers on college campuses can be "an emotional issue" for many people. Some college administrators just do not see a need to arm their officers with firearms. They point to the relative safety of college campuses and point out that their officers are first and foremost "safety officers" who are primarily involved with building lockups, parking enforcement, key control, lost and found, personal safety escorts, Haz-Mat management, fire and crime prevention education, and assorted public service oriented work. Many institutions with non-sworn and unarmed officers believe that the presence of officers with a gun belt detracts from the educational environment and makes officers less approachable.

In cases of an active shooter situation, proponents of unarmed security point out that as tragic as these occurrences are, they occur very infrequently and statistically will never occur on most campuses. If the rare active shooter incident were to occur, these institutions rely on a response from local law enforcement which presumably has the training, expertise, and firearms necessary to address the threat. Colleges that rely upon unarmed campus safety personnel often point out, and rightly so, that there is no empirical evidence that suicidal shooters are deterred from attacks on college campuses by armed security personnel.

Additionally, having armed security requires regular training and training costs money. There is also increased legal liability that comes with employing armed security personnel. While negligence tort actions for inadequate security are increasing regardless of whether the security personnel are armed, there is generally far less legal liability associated with unarmed security personnel than armed security personnel.

Role of safety and security personnel

Call them what you want - campus police officers, safety officers, security officers, or anything else; each college or university must make a fundamental determination as to what they expect from their safety and security personnel. Safety and security functions on many campuses have just gradually "morphed" or evolved over the years instead of resulting from a systematic and well vetted plan for campus safety and security. Many administrators do not recurrently ask the fundamental question: Exactly what do we expect from our safety and security personnel? If the school wants their personnel to focus on building access control, safety escort services, fire and crime prevention, parking enforcement, vehicle jumpstarts, escorting visitors around campus and related service oriented work, there is probably no need for their officers to be armed with a firearm. Many colleges and universities across the United States have chosen this route and have been able to maintain safe and secure campuses.

On the other hand, if the school expects their personnel to perform a more traditional law enforcement role (i.e., confront violators suspected of committing crimes, conduct undercover investigations, intervene in physical altercations or active shooter situations), then the school has an obligation to give their officers the tools required to do their job. "Tools" include less lethal "force multipliers" like pepper spray, batons, and Taser, and it also means firearms.
If the decision is made to arm officers with firearms or even less lethal weapons, school administrators should recognize the increased obligations and responsibilities that come with such a decision, namely hiring, policy and procedure, training, and supervision.

About Author / Additional Info:

George W. Babnick, JD is a 32 year law enforcement veteran with an extensive background in training, school policing, criminal and administrative investigations, supervision and management, and criminal forensics. He currently serves as a Captain in the Portland, Oregon Police Bureau where he manages the Forensic Evidence Division. He holds criminal justice degrees from Portland Community College and Portland State University and a law degree from Northwestern California University School of Law, Sacramento California. He is a member of ASIS (American Society of Industrial Security), the Western Society of Criminology, the IAI (International Association of Identification), and the IACP (International Association of Chiefs of Police). He is the author of articles on law enforcement and security, private investigations, supervision and management, and risk management related to these subjects. He can be reached at: Nothing in this article is intended to or should be construed as legal advice. Persons needing legal advice should seek the counsel of an attorney.