Between the April 2007 Virginia Tech shooting and a 2018 evaluation conducted by the school’s newspaper, The Collegiate Times, there were an estimated 122 deaths by shooting and 198 individuals injured by gunfire on college campuses. An additional 26 people committed suicide by firearm on campus in the ten year span. These incidents are not indicative of the full span of violent acts committed on college campuses, including sexual and domestic violence, or any act involving a weapon other than a gun. In response, security officers on college campuses nationwide have risen to the occasion in order to protect the lives and well-being of the students in their care. The answer for many campus safety units has been the controversial practice of arming their officers.
Across the United States, the percentage of armed campus police forces totals 75%, up from a reported 68% in 2005. Among the 199 private colleges with “sworn campus authority,” approximately 95% of officers are armed, leaving just 4.5% of campus safety forces without firearms, according to the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. Hope College is among the small number of those institutions that have forgone armed enforcement, but there has been talk of arming Campus Safety officers since 2014, when the sitting Student Congress wrote a letter expressing their approval of campus personnel being permitted to carry a weapon. This campus joins many others in a national conversation about the most effective means by which sworn security forces can reduce the amount of violent incidents on campus and prevent the unthinkable, such as an act of mass violence.
Proponents of arming officers might cite the fact that there have been thirteen deaths and forty-eight injuries by gunfire this year, although the statistic is not exclusive to college campuses and includes elementary, middle and high schools. Furthermore, the widely-cited Virginia tech shooting and subsequent deaths of thirty-two individuals was not an isolated incident and was followed by a shooting rampage on the campus of the University of Northern Illinois, where six of the twenty-three victims passed away from their injuries.
For many, however, the imminent threat of violence is not enough to constitute the intentional introduction of firearms into the campus community, regardless of the good intentions that precede such a decision. In 2017, a Georgia Tech student was shot and killed by campus police. His death was followed by the killing of an armed man by the Portland State University Police and the near-fatal wounding of a student by campus police at the University of Chicago. Thus, supporters and detractors alike have compelling statistics and personal stories to back their respective arguments for whether campus safety officers should be armed.
There is a standard protocol when an institution makes the decision to equip their campus security forces with firearms, which includes continuous training in the use of deadly force, specifically when to discharge a weapon and when to take steps toward de-escalating the situation. Police forces at large have been emphasizing the need for effective verbal skills, and have been putting training modules in place in the wake of increased media coverage of police-related homicides since the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police in 2014. This incident sparked nationwide protest against police brutality, which is perhaps the greatest fear associated with arming campus safety officers.
If Hope were to arm campus safety officers, the school would join the 95% of private institutions who have already made that call. Among that percentage is Calvin University, then Calvin College, which granted its officers the ability to carry firearms, batons, pepper spray and handcuffs in 2008. This was seen by many as a response to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, after which the school drafted and approved a “Use of Force” policy that is still in use today. Officers at Calvin are required to wear body cameras, a precaution implemented to ensure accountability on behalf of campus police, as well as to ensure peace of mind among the student body. In the eleven years since the policy went into effect, there have been no incidents on Calvin’s campus that required the use of deadly force; however, school administrators have expressed no regrets.
It is still up for debate as to whether Hope will choose to arm officers, but this institution is not alone in its questioning. Rather, it is part of a national conversation about safety and security centered about the students that Campus Safety is sworn to protect. It is with the Hope and Holland communities in mind that the decision will eventually be made, but regardless of the result, it is the hope of all who live here that the day when swift access to firearms would be required should never dawn over Hope College.